Farnborough Airshow: Brexit? What Brexit?!
(Source: Deutsche Welle German Radio; posted July 18, 2018)
Sure, there's been the odd mention of the UK's leaving the European Union at Farnborough, and the odd announcement that says "there's still a great in Great Britain." But aerospace is so global, you're unlikely to care.

When the UK's defense minister, Gavin Williamson, unveiled a full-scale model of a future combat aircraft at the 2018 Farnborough Airshow, it was impossible to misread the message. "We're coming out fighting," is what it seemed to say. "We might not get the deal we want from Brexit, but we're gonna throw all our money at a bright new future in aerospace."

So, for a stealthy-looking aircraft, it was one for the eyes. The unveiling of "Tempest" coincided with a new combat air strategy and the unmistakable words of intent from the main players in "Team Tempest": Charles Woodburn and and Sir Stephen Hillier, heads of BAE Systems and the Royal Air Force respectively, along with the companies Leonardo UK, MBDA UK and Rolls-Royce.

Woodburn and Hillier were clear they expected more cash to come. It seems the only counter-balance to any chaos in which the government may find itself.

And, indeed, the UK will drop a further £2 billion ($2.6 billion; €2.24 billion) worth of investments on its Future Combat Air Strategy by 2025. That's on top of investments in other industrial sectors, like New Space, which includes small and micro satellites, spaceports and launch vehicles.

It's a crazy turn — albeit, a welcome one you might say — from a conservative UK government that traditionally would cut spending. It's still doing that, of course. A glance at the National Health Service will show you that. But it's spending big on aerospace.

Put your money where your rocket is

One New Space company that's benefitted from this is Orbex, which delivers satellites to space. They've secured £30 million in government and private funding as well as support from the UK and European Space Agencies. They're a UK company but European, too, and its CEO, Chris Larmour, says Brexit may even be good for the country.

"Brexit has complexities that we can't even foresee," says Larmour. "But there are also opportunities, and one of them is the UK government's willingness to invest."

Some of those other investments include a £17-million vote of confidence in a candidate spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland. It's different from the other major hopefuls— Glasgow Prestwick and Newquay in Cornwall — in that Sutherland would be a vertical launch site. Newquay and Prestwick are bidding for horizontal launchers.

So, Sutherland's got a unique selling point there, and Orbex is even developing its own rocket.

Is Europe missing out?

Market projections go up and down, but when it comes to small sats over the next decade, Larmour cites a projection as high as "£62 billion in launch service value."

It's a number that even serial entrepreneur Richard Branson is unable to ignore. Branson is already in on the game with Virgin Galactic, which aims to send tourists into space. And with Virgin Orbit, he's grasping the small sat sector by both antennae, too. Virgin Orbit is a founding shareholder in One Web, which plans to launch 800 small sats over the next few years to bring broadband internet to four billion people.

"Small sats are exciting right now," says Patrick McCall, Virgin Orbit's chairman. Virgin Orbit has teamed up with Cornwall Council to get the Newquay spaceport bid off the ground.

McCall says government support for New Space companies is important. "There is definitely a role for government," he says.

"Sending humans into space is harder than sending satellites into space, there's no doubt about that," McCall says. "We see this with Cornwall as a first step. And we hope we'll be sending humans into space for space tourism from Newquay as well. But satellites are a great place to start."

And they may just see the UK through a few tough post-Brexit years.

Spaceport Cornwall's director, Miles Carden, says the partnership with Virgin Orbit "a massive post-EU-exit opportunity for us to grow our economy in the UK. It's a new technology, and it's also about children and the STEM education agenda — to get them excited about engineering and space."

But the UK is not without its competitors, even friendly ones.

Take Portugal: It's got its own designs on the satellites industry, and it's working to establish a spaceport in the Azores. Luckily for the UK, though, Portugal has companies like Tekever who sees no reason to turn its back on the UK just because it's left some club.

"The talent is here. Regardless of what happens politically, the people are here and the need is here," says Tekever CEO Ricardo Mendes.

Tekever has a UK subsidiary where they develop a big part of the company's systems and Intellectual Property, says Mendes, "and we don't intend to go anywhere."

"[Brexit] could jeopardize some of the relationships with other European countries, for sure," he says, "but it will also open up other possibilities."

The door is still open

If you look at some of the larger aerospace players, however, they seem quite happy to make threats to the contrary.

Airbus, for instance, has said that the UK exiting the EU without a deal on the single market and customs union would lead to "severe disruption" of its UK production. "This scenario would force Airbus to reconsider its investments in the UK, and its long-term footprint in the country, severely undermining UK efforts to keep a competitive and innovative aerospace industry …," wrote Airbus in a press release (June 21, 2018).

If Airbus followed through with its threat — and there's no other way to describe it — it would surely have a knock-on effect for smaller players further down the aerospace food chain, like Wallwork. They may be smaller than Airbus, but Wallwork provides a vital service, heat treating materials to harden them before they can be used to build planes and other vehicles.

"It's not very positive when Airbus makes those kinds of comments," says Simeon Collins, who manages Wallwork's Cambridge site. "But we have to put our trust in the politicians, and that they are going to get a good deal that doesn't cause too much disruption."

So, we got the message. The money's there. And for some sectors, like defense and space, Brexit may even be a "good deal" after all.

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