A new facility at Cranfield University is set to make the UK a global leader in digital aviation research. Sitting at its core is collaboration between academia and industry.

The £67 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (DARTeC) was officially opened in July by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

DARTeC aims to address some of the main research challenges facing the aviation industry, including:

  • the integration of drones into civilian airspace;
  • increasing the efficiency of airports through technological advances;
  • creating safe, secure shared airspace through secure data communication infrastructures;
  • increasing the reliability and availability of aircraft utilising self-sensing/aware and self-healing/repair technologies.

The world-leading facility is located next to Cranfield’s airport and consists of a central building with digital aviation research laboratories and collaborative open plan office space where staff, students and partners work together, and a partially covered ‘hangar laboratory’ connected to Cranfield’s 737-400 aircraft through an airport-style air bridge.

Researchers at DARTeC are already working with industry partners to advance the application of digital technologies in the air transport sector. Projects are underway to drive forward innovations in digital airspace and airport infrastructure that will help the UK reach its target of net zero carbon emissions and support industry to bounce back stronger from COVID-19.

Collaboration was also a key theme at DARTeC’s first Digital Aviation Conference, attended by over a thousand people earlier this year and organised to bring the digital aviation community together and address industry challenges.

“Collaborative working is fundamental in tackling the huge challenge of enabling the future airspace ecosystem, where both crewed and uncrewed aircraft will seamlessly and safely share all environments,” said Dr Dimitrios Panagiotakopoulos, Senior Lecturer in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management at Cranfield. “That goes from designing scalable ground infrastructure to intelligent air traffic management systems and new aerial systems leveraging full automation and autonomy.”

A win-win for industry and academia

Cranfield is working with a range of industry partners and organisations at DARTeC. Consortium partners encompass Aveillant, Blue Bear Systems Research, Boeing, BOXARR, Connected Places Catapult, Cranfield University, Etihad Airways, Heathrow, Inmarsat, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the IVHM Centre, Saab, Satellite Applications Catapult, Spirent Communications and Thales, with co-investment support from Research England.

“Collaborative working at DARTeC is a win-win situation for both industry and academia with many mutual benefits,” said Dr Saba Al-Rubaye, Reader in Autonomous and Connected Systems at Cranfield. “Through working on DARTeC projects I have felt the real-world and existing challenges in unmanned aircraft systems communications which usually are not noticed in academic-only research projects. I have had the chance to work with different people from industry and to understand their mindsets – this can help with planning for future collaboration.”

Cranfield researchers list knowledge transfer, awareness of industry trends, inspiration from application derived discussions, quicker test and validation routes for innovative concepts, faster routes to market and up-take of new technology developments, and outreach to extended population brackets as among the benefits for both academia and industry arising from collaboration.

Working with SMEs

As well as collaboration with more established industry partners, the involvement of small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) in DARTeC is also providing particular advantages.

Dr Panagiotakopoulos says: “Working with SMEs has been a breath of fresh air – their agility has often expedited project work, decision-making and product development. Products, solutions and services developed can be a fundamental part of SME product lines, helping them to grow, and providing key contributions to the future airspace and technologies that will fully unlock the true potential of drone applications.”

“Collaborative projects with academia provide an excellent opportunity for SMEs to benefit from the cutting-edge research activities of academics and fill gaps in R&D, which not all start-ups can afford to have,” adds Dr Al-Rubaye. “It allows them to stay continuously connected to early-stage research and to accelerate the translation of that research into new products that drive economic growth.”

DARTeC projects are also enabling Cranfield researchers to work with innovative SMEs not from the aerospace/aviation sector. This is allowing for the consideration of wider exploitation of research to other industrial sectors and providing researchers with a better understanding of current R&D in other sectors and how they can benefit from it.

Global research airport

Cranfield’s global research airport offers a unique environment for transformational research with interconnectivity between facilities and across academic disciplines.

Game-changing technologies such as the first operational digital air traffic control tower in the UK and next-generation radar technologies on the University’s licensed airport create a unique research and development environment.

Combining the University’s unique facilities for aviation-related projects and rich experience in handling aerospace development with the breadth of DARTeC’s industry partners is providing a complete package for projects covering research, test, validation, and prototype manufacture.