The aviation of the future is faced with the huge challenge of significantly reducing its emissions. The digitalisation of aeronautics offers new opportunities for efficiency improvements in the aviation system as a whole, such that efficiency becomes a more central consideration right from the outset, in the design of more efficient aircraft. Moreover, in the operational phase, digitalisation can revolutionise cost-effective and customised maintenance. With the Institute of System Architectures in Aeronautics and the Institute of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) will be pooling and expanding research into the digitalisation of aeronautics – from the initial digital aircraft design through to simulated decommissioning. Pascale Ehrenfreund, Chair of the DLR Executive Board, and Rolf Henke, DLR Executive Board Member responsible for aeronautics research, together with Dirk Wiese, Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, and Olaf Scholz, First Mayor and President of the Senate of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, have inaugurated the two DLR Institutes at Hamburg's ZAL TechCenter
"We are delighted that we are now represented in Hamburg – one of the biggest hubs of civil aviation in the world – with two newly established DLR institutes, and to closely cooperate in the ZAL with our industry partners, in the field of application-oriented research," said Pascale Ehrenfreund on the occasion of the opening. Rolf Henke stressed that "the two new DLR Institutes in Hamburg are central to the digitalisation of aeronautics, as they will make it possible to map the complexities of aircraft right along the ‘digital thread’ – from design, through production and operation, right up to decommissioning."
Digital design and digital twinning
The main research focus at the Institute of System Architectures in Aeronautics is the area of digital design and how it connects with digital production, in order to be able to perfect the design and manufacturing of aircraft with the help of digitalised processes (digital aircraft). Researchers are also looking into the interplay between different system levels, since the complex aviation system is made up of many different areas that must be perfectly aligned with one another – from the air transport system as a whole down to the individual aircraft and the manufacturing of all its separate components.
The Institute of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul deals with aircraft operation, notably the further development of maintenance processes and technologies, and lifecycle management (digital twinning). This will initially cover the entire maintenance process, from inspection and monitoring of a structure through to determining what measures to take and, finally, the implementation of those measures. The focus will be on innovative technologies such as augmented reality and 3D printing.
The work of both Hamburg institutes will be complemented with ideas and developments in the areas of high-performance computing, simulation environments and software methods developed by the Institute of Software Methods for Product Virtualization in Dresden. The Institute of Test and Simulation for Gas Turbines, recently established in Augsburg, completes the portfolio with the 'virtual engine' – the most complex component of an aircraft – which in turn relies on software methods from Dresden, and will be integrated into the work of the Institutes of System Architectures in Aeronautics and Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul.
"By supporting research institutions such as the DLR institutes of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul and of System Architectures in Aeronautics, we are providing our economy with an efficient research infrastructure," says Dirk Wiese, Parliamentary State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. "In this way, we want to create a high-tech focus for digitalisation here in Hamburg – a topic that is increasingly penetrating all sectors of the economy. Not only do we not want to be left behind, but we want Germany to play a leading role in digitalisation. I am sure that the two DLR institutes will make a major contribution to this."
On the occasion of the opening ceremony, Hamburg's First Mayor Olaf Scholz said: " We are pleased that DLR decided to establish a branch in Hamburg. The close cooperation between science and industry is going to give rise to innovations that will be trend-setting for the entire industry. The ZAL is a place of innovative ideas that result in new products for the aviation industry."
Activities of the new institutes
The Institute of System Architectures in Aeronautics will initially have three departmens, which is intended to be staffed by approximately 80 employees in the coming years. The Aircraft Design and System Integration Department will be studying development processes for virtual products in the overall aviation system. Good opportunities for innovative and potentially revolutionary solutions are offered by digital consistency, and the consequent potential for dissolving the boundaries between individual systems. The Automation, Energy and Safety Department builds on this work, studying the integration of new technologies which promise significant improvements. A common factor in these technologies is that they require extensive changes in the way that the individual systems in aviation, the so-called system architecture, will interact. The Cabin and Payload Systems Department will focus on systemic issues relating to the fuselage – a key industrial area in Germany, and Hamburg in particular. The synergy between these three departments will lead to research into aircraft incorporating intelligent technologies, driven by the demands of future passengers, that can be manufactured efficiently in the factories of the future, while at the same time achieving both maximum ecological compatibility and maximum safety in future operation.
The Institute of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul is also intended to have three departments employing around 80 staff members. The Process Optimisation and Digitalisation Department will study how the condition of an aircraft can be continuously and comprehensively represented, tracked and predicted in a digital twin. In addition, maintenance processes will be optimised so that they can interact effectively with this digital twin. The Maintenance and Repair Technologies Department will primarily study how these optimised processes can be smoothly incorporated into a modular process chain with information-sharing, and how a digital twin can be configured as a process interface. It will also study how additive manufacturing methods for repair and retrofitting can in the future be integrated into aircraft maintenance. The research work of the Product Lifecycle Management Department will focus on consistency in the approach to aircraft lifecycle management. In particular, the long-term economic and ecological consequences of new maintenance concepts, measures and technologies, and of product modifications and retrofits, are to be monitored and predicted by means of digital twinning.
Location in the ZAL
A very close working relationship with the relevant industries and SMEs is essential for industry-orientated research. For this reason, the Institute is based at the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL) in Hamburg. Here, DLR is able to carry out research in collaboration with numerous industrial partners in the aviation sector, including Airbus and Lufthansa Technik, but also suppliers and start-ups, in the same building and with joint use of large-scale test aircraft. Careful matching of the research skills that need to be built up in order for research results to be put to the best possible use by our industry partners has already begun. Beyond the regional network, the aim is to conduct research in partnership with a range of German and international companies.
The new Hamburg institutes will receive an annual funding of 10 million euro from the German government and the City of Hamburg, 90 percent of it provided by the Federal Government. In addition, the City of Hamburg is making two million euro available during the establishment phase for investment measures.
Overall research objective is the Virtual Product
DLR research into the digitalisation of aeronautics is committed to the ‘Virtual Product’ overall research objective. Under this umbrella, there are three major strands of digitalisation: the 'digital aircraft', representing a numerical description of all properties of a particular model of aircraft, covering design, testing, manufacture and certification; the 'digital twin', representing a highly accurate digital description of an individual aircraft on the basis of which operational aspects, maintenance and servicing can be carried out and scheduled; and the 'digital thread', which provides for consistent provision of all data and processes relating to an aircraft over its entire lifecycle.
DLR is establishing a total of seven new research institutes in the areas of system architecture, maintenance, virtual engines, software, data science, maritime security and energy systems analysis.