How BAE Systems in Lancashire is using technology in defence of the planet

Some of its products in defence of the country use as much energy as a small town, but BAE Systems is aiming to defend the planet too with new technology to cut its carbon footprint.

Wednesday, 29th December 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Friday, 31st December 2021, 1:38 pm

The aerospace giant, with its two huge research and production plants in Lancashire employing 10,000 people, is aiming to do its bit to reduce emissions of CO2 by cutting energy usage in a raft of ways.

As the world gets to grips with the need to slow global warming following the COP26 conference in Glasgow, the hi-tech firm has been looking for ways to head towards zero carbon and to cut costs and time involved in its processes.

Earlier this year the company joined the United Nations' Race to Zero campaign, committing to achieve net zero across its operations by 2030 and across its supply chain by 2050.

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A solar farm the size of eight football pitches is helping us to power the advanced manufacturing of world-class fighter jets.

In November it announced a new Masters-level sustainability apprenticeship programme to bring in champions to head the sustainability drive across the company and look at new ways of saving energy.

But it has also taken a long look at all aspects of its production process too, in a bid to cut costs from what is an energy hungry sector.

Chief Technologist for BAE Systems Air, Julia Sutcliffe, said the company was taking a whole industry approach harnessing the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (digital technology) and the green revolution, to make fundamental changes.

She said: "We are investing in low to zero carbon products such as large scale solar farm in Samlesbury which has so far saved 4,500 tonnes of carbon emissions, smart buildings and we are working closely with our customers such as the MOD and RAF to support them in their transition towards net zero too.

"We are investing in leaner, lighter products with a lower carbon footprint, creating innovative new products that are electrified and looking to replace fossil fuels."

She said digital technology would underpin the transition, data science, augmented reality, the so-called Internet of Things (machines with digital tech embedded) synthetics and AI, would all help the company change and become more efficient.

"You will see multi-million pound investments such as the Factory of the Future at Warton and collaboration with blue chip companies, SMEs and universities to create this capability."

She said already they were making progress in additive layer manufacturing or 3D printing. One example is in making parts for the Tornado aircraft. A bracket that once had to be machined from a piece of metal, cutting out the shape needed and as a result producing a lot of waste metal, was now being made by 3D printing.

But it goes further. The process to make the bracket is fully digital. Julia said: "This technology is creating really innovative approaches, the complete lifecycle.

"No human could design that new bracket and they could not build it either with conventional methods, but the new tech can and it reduces massive amounts of waste and reduces the time and energy needed.

"We have used this technique to create a large engine mount for the Typhoon. Now that used to take 100 weeks to create and produce, we can do it in 60 days using the new technology, a huge reduction in the operational footprint."

She said the partnerships with other companies and universities was producing fabulous innovation in the North West.

"This is a whole lifecycle approach to achieving net zero. We look also at future support and training solutions for customers, using our digital capability to reduce the time and cost of operations."

One example is synthetics and virtual reality technologies in training pilots to use BAE Systems aircraft, to cut costs, time and CO2 through reduced fuel use.

"In 2020 we completed around 9,000 training events synthetically, using the synthetic training facilities we have deployed to RAF Conningsby and Lossiemouth. That 13,000 flying hours conducted in the simulators. That saved 75 million litres of aviation fuel. Equivalent to 184,000 tonnes of CO2.

"A fraction of the products overall carbon cost is its manufacturing, but by far the biggest is the operational usage, so the more we can do to help our customers achieve competency without flying and burning jet fuel the better."

"You join the RAF to be a pilot and fly, but everyone recognises how important global warming is. The synthetic training is such high fidelity that its really well received."

And the digital revolution is producing benefits in other ways. With Typhoon, when operating in four ship sorties over the period of a year, the jets gather terabytes of information through their sensors. If a byte was one grain of rice, the aircraft gather enough to fill two container ships full of rice. The next generation of aircraft, by 2040, will be operating in the zettabyte domain (10 to the power 21 bytes) with their digital equipment, enough rice to cover the Atlantic ocean.

"The data we are getting into is massive and helping us transform what we do. Fast jets like the future one Tempest are really highly optimised systems with complex integrated electrical, thermal, hydraulics, fuel propulsion system at peak load when its operation and all its sensors are operating it draws the energy equivalent to the demand of a small town.

"So we are looking at everything a whole range of options - alternative fuels such as sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen fuel cells, intelligent electrical distribution mechanisms, load management to reduce the amount of energy you need in the first place. We have worked with the Williams Formula One team over the years for the simulators, e-batteries.

BAE Systems is creating leaner lighter product sets for its customers - unmanned aircraft such as the PHASA 35 high altitude aircraft weighing just 150Kg with solar panels that keep it aloft for a year, and the T650 un-crewed aircraft with Malloy Aeronautics. It is an electrically powered drone with a payload capability of 300kg.

In November, the firm launched its Big Switch campaign, to encourage its employees too to make changes to cut energy usage, such as turning off lights, recycling or consider having the occasional vegan meal every week to cut CO2. The firm has also had a massive response from its Innovation Station drive asking employees to come up with savings ideas.

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