Putting Florida's aerospace industry on the launch pad
By John Eric Vona
By the end of 2010, NASA will retire its remaining three shuttles and Florida may lose an estimated 8,000 jobs around the state. Employing more than 80,000 highly skilled workers and contributing in excess of $100 billion to Florida’s economy, the aerospace industry is a huge player — losing the business would be disastrous in an already unpleasant economic climate.
To keep the state competitive, the Legislature three years ago budgeted seed money to establish the Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion (FCAAP). Headquartered in Tallahassee’s Innovation Park, the center coordinates the research efforts of four Florida universities that are leading the way in aviation research and working toward solutions to help sustain the aerospace industry.
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In 2006, the Florida Legislature passed the 21st Century Technology, Research and Scholarship Enhancement Act, establishing Centers of Excellence that could give Florida a competitive edge in areas of emerging technology that would have a clear economic impact on the state. A call for proposals went out from the Florida Technology, Research and Scholarship Board.
"My initial thought was that there must be a center in Florida that focuses on aerospace and I wanted to propose something that would work with them. But I found out there was no such center," said Dr. Farrukh Alvi, a professor of mechanical engineering at Florida State University, and FCAAP founder and director.
So Alvi and his colleagues proposed to create a center that would serve as a link between all the state-funded aerospace researchers in Florida, and between those scientists and the rest of the industry, including designers, operators and manufacturers. "The whole aim of our proposal was to develop a center that served as a focal point for research, training and developing technologies that are relevant to the industry," he said.
The center is designed not only to meet the needs of those companies that are already in Florida but to attract new aerospace industry to the state as well.
"We have, collectively, between researchers at FSU, University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Embry-Riddle (Aeronautical University), a whole range of expertise that covers most of the areas that the aviation and aerospace industry needs," said Alvi. "So, before I could work on maybe 10 to 20 percent of the problem in this lab. Now, collectively, we can work on 60 to 80 percent of the problem."
Working together, Seminoles, Gators, Knights and Eagles hope to meet the many challenges facing Florida’s aerospace industry and stave off a potential exodus as the work force ages and many companies relocate to states like California, which has provided state research support similar to what Florida is doing now.
"The FCAAP is an effort that brings together universities to make an organization stronger than ever could have been made before," said Dr. Joe Shaw, Associate Director for Partnership Programs at NASA’s Glenn Research Center. "These smart partnerships are critical to achieving our national objectives in aerospace."
The partnership of labs around the state also brings much needed attention to a Florida resource often overlooked.
"When we had the first kickoff meeting November 20th, 2008, we invited people from all over the state and country, and the most common response was that they did not know we had all of these facilities and resources here in Florida," said Alvi.
Those resources, rarely publicly acknowledged, conduct cutting-edge research in aerospace technology, from advanced aero-propulsion-fuel cells to thermal insulation for future space vehicles. Scientists are hard at work trying to create more fuel-efficient planes that pollute less, or exploring how to control noise at high-traffic airports where the constant roar of jet engines disturbs the surrounding population.
Their research is not only applicable to the aviation and aerospace industries. According to Frank Bevc, director of Technology Policy & Research Programs for the Energy Sector of the Siemens Corporation, "We support FCAAP and its focus research areas because the technologies are directly applicable to our gas turbine- and perhaps even wind turbine-based electric power generation product lines."
Florida already has a work force skilled in the field and a university system ready to support it. By providing government support to keep aerospace firms in Florida, and make it attractive for companies here to expand, the hope is to retain jobs that could easily be lost. If successful, all of this adds up to more jobs in a time when they are desperately needed.
The center’s mission extends beyond pure research as a means to make Florida more attractive to new aviation companies. By coordinating their research efforts through FCAAP and bringing in new grants from both private and public sources, the various universities’ programs are expected to become far more attractive to students.
Alvi describes it as a pipeline, connecting industry to its most valuable resource — well-trained people. The program helps attract more students at both the undergraduate and graduate level by promising them the opportunity to work on real problems and get hands-on experience, applying what they learn in the classroom. Because many of the issues labs are working on under the FCAAP umbrella are for private companies or the Department of Defense (through Eglin Air Force Base), these students then have a huge advantage in obtaining a job in the industry.
At one end of the pipeline, the center attracts new students to Florida by showing them the state has the most exciting aerospace programs. At the other end, aerospace companies, NASA and the DOD have access to research produced by those students and their professors, and to the students that come out of the program, highly skilled and ready to enter the workforce.
In 2006, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and his state’s legislature enacted laws providing for the first purpose-built commercial spaceport after Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic announced it would headquarter itself there. Spaceport America is in the early stages of construction but is expected to be complete by 2010.
Competition from other states is not where Alvi’s worries lie. "We have a distinct advantage because we already have ports, spaceports and facilities," he said. "They need to be modified but the huge investment that you would need to start this is already there. If we lose it, it will be because of our lack of foresight."
Though Florida has allotted money to combat the threat to one of our most valuable industries, obstacles still stand in the way. The current economic downturn has forced a cut of nearly 25 percent in seed money coming from the state, from $14.57 million to about $10.9 million.
The industry the program hopes to serve has also been adversely affected. For example, last September the Florida-based commercial airline company DayJet ceased operations, grounding its entire fleet and laying off all employees.
With shuttle retirements looming and no quick economic recovery in sight, Floridians can only hope that the FCAAP isn’t too little, too late to save the Sunshine State’s aerospace industry.
While awaiting completion of construction at its Innovation Park home, Alvi said the center is fully operational. "The core of the FCAAP is the research that comes out and the training, so all these labs are up and running and were up and running before," he explained. The difference is, they’ve expanded and are now able to buy more and better equipment and work on more problems because they have more resources available.
According to Alvi, there are many reasons besides the FCAAP for an aviation company to stay in Florida or to move here. "Florida has a head start," he said. "And, if we were to lose that position we can’t blame anybody else."