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May 05, 2009— Ottawa, Ontario
The future of flight
On February 23, 1909, the "Silver Dart" lifted off from a frozen lake in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, achieving the first powered, controlled, heavier-than-air flight. One hundred years later, NRC test pilots are participating in centennial flyovers at various air shows, including a special flight over Ottawa scheduled for the next Canada Day.
Not long after Alexander Graham Bell and his engineering team made Canadian aviation history, French artists gazed into their crystal balls and depicted their vision of life in the year 2000. In a series of illustrations, they predicted that flying machines would play a central role in 21st Century society, allowing firefighters to hover like helicopters and Sunday drivers to soar over the boulevards of Paris. While these early visionaries clearly got the shape of modern aircraft wrong, they correctly foretold the rise of the aerospace industry in Canada and around the world.
Thanks in part to more than 60 years of research at NRC, aerospace today is one of Canada's most dynamic industrial sectors, and Canada is among the world's top five aerospace nations. This Canadian industry earns revenues of nearly $23 billion annually and leads in a host of key market segments, including commercial flight simulators, civil helicopters, and space robotics and imaging. More than 400 aerospace companies from coast to coast provide 82,000 high-quality jobs to Canadians. Overall, aerospace ranks as Canada's largest manufacturing industry for R&D spending, R&D intensity and number of R&D jobs.
But what does tomorrow hold? Just as the futurists of yesteryear could not accurately foresee what aviation would look like in the 21st Century, it's difficult to predict how the Canadian aerospace industry will evolve in the coming decades. But just for fun, I asked NRC experts what they think our flying machines will look like 50 to 100 years from now.
So what do they see in the tea leaves? First, they conservatively note that since many of the aircraft we're operating today look much like those that were built in the late 1950s, the aircraft that we're building now will likely still be cruising the skies 30 or 40 years from now. This has major implications for aerospace research, including NRC research priorities.
Our experts also note that the industry is moving toward an environmentally sustainable model by building safer, lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft. For example, in response to rising oil prices and environmental concerns, tomorrow's airplanes could very well run on bio-derived, sustainable fuels produced by algae that feed on carbon dioxide in our environment. Meanwhile the current aluminium and composite aircraft structures may be replaced by new, high-strength, lightweight components.
In addition, we may see dual-cycle propulsion engines that run more efficiently at both subsonic and supersonic speeds — paving the way for more accessible and affordable supersonic travel. And, next generation aircraft systems and their individual components will probably be much more reliable — and hence safer for travellers — in future.
To help shape the future of aviation, NRC has created an aerospace sector plan that will boost the competitiveness of Canada's aerospace industry. Our plan gives aerospace firms coordinated access to NRC's research leaders and facilities located at the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research and more than a dozen other NRC research institutes across Canada, which offer expertise ranging from biotechnology and nanotechnology to industrial materials research.
By leveraging its extensive expertise across multiple disciplines, NRC can offer unprecedented scientific support to industry, ensuring it remains on the leading edge of aerospace innovation. No other single organization in Canada can offer the same level of collaboration and assistance to industry. In fact, NRC's unique multidisciplinary collaborations are our biggest asset as a public research organization.
The current issue of NRC Highlights describes our Advanced Materials Initiative; how NRC helped Bombardier Aerospace introduce its first robotics system for the assembly of aircraft components; and the development of oil-free bearings that reduce the weight of aircraft engines and lower fuel consumption. It also profiles unique training programs developed by NRC staff: one course that teaches firefighters what hazards to avoid when dousing aircraft fires; and an NRC "finishing school" for helicopter test pilots that helps them master the evaluation of experimental flying machines.
These are just a few examples of how NRC is helping to shape a strong future for the Canadian aerospace industry.
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