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With charismatic billionaire Elon Musk's company SpaceX firing on all cylinders, the Curiosity rover still busily exploring the Gale Crater on Mars, and the recent incredible touchdown of the Philae lander on an inhospitable comet, aerospace is a big deal at the moment.

Aerospace and especially space travel are also subject to a lot of urban legends, rumour and outright conspiracy. Some of this is because of political leanings, while some is a result of the conflict between the truth and a good story.

When it comes to the truth and good stories, we’re firmly in the ‘both’ camp, so we thought we’d share some of the ways that aerospace research has definitely improved our lives.

1. NAVSAT To SatNav

The first satellite navigation system was known as Transit, and was deployed by the US Navy. Also known as NAVSAT, it was most useful for submarines, although it also saw use for surface ships and eventually even civilians.

Surveyors quickly realised the utility of Transit, especially if you averaged multiple readings, and it was eventually used to correct the measurement of Mount Everest’s height.

Of course, it has now been replaced by the GPS that we know and usually love. Even if our SatNav occasionally leads us into an empty field instead of the shortcut we were hoping for, it’s a technological marvel.

2. Brace for landing

The material that is used in invisible braces (and has saved many a sensitive teenager from social ignominy) was originally developed by Ceradyne in conjunction with NASA’s Advanced Ceramics Research division.

The substance that invisible braces are made of is translucent polycrystalline alumina, and has been slightly mollifying teen angst since the late 1980s.

3. Eagle Eye sunglasses

One very cool spin-off from the quest to reach space is these sunglasses, which exclude harmful wavelengths while specifically allowing harmless wavelengths through.

While looking through them is still different, they’re recognisably clearer and sharper than ordinary sunglasses, which significantly dim your view. The difference comes from a lack of blue, violet and ultraviolet rays.

This all arose from research into the harmful nature of light in space.

4. Like sleeping on a cloud

NASA are also responsible for the ‘memory mattress’, which you have doubtless seen in many late night commercials. It’s not just for those in search of a good night’s sleep, though – it’s often essential for patients and other vulnerable people who need to stay in one position for a long time without developing sores. Even better, it can be used in prosthetic limbs to make them feel more comfortable.

The same material is used in all kinds of exciting vehicles, including motorbikes and race cars, but we doubt that any of them can rival the glamour of the foamy material’s origins in NASA aircraft seats.

5. Pens in space

The urban legend about the space pen goes that while NASA spent a staggering number of years and a vast amount of money funding a ballpoint pen that would work in any conditions in space – meanwhile, the canny Russians simply skipped over all that fuss and used a pencil.

The truth is that both Americans and Russians used pencils, but NASA bought a private inventor’s design, now known as the Fisher Space Pen, which built on this auspicious start to become a huge commercial success.

The reason it was invented? In space, simple wooden pencils can become life-threatening liabilities.

NASA had already lost three talented astronauts in the tragic fire on Apollo 1, and was happy to spend money eliminating anything that could go up in flames (such as the wood in pencils), or anything that could fragment and interfere with on-board instruments (such as the graphite in pencils).

Russia adopted their own space pen just a few years later, in 1969.

The space pen itself, as an adaptation of the biro or ball-point pen, was building on another product eagerly adopted by pilots. The biro was a revelation to early fighter pilots, who found that fountain pens were leaky or prone to exploding.

You can still buy ‘space pens’, and they still work better than biros – their thixotropic ink ensures that they run out ‘all at once’ rather than leaving an irritating scratchy mark for months first.

How much does the aerospace and aeronautical sector spend on R&D?

As of 2014, the UK aerospace sector accounts for a little over 5% of the turnover of the entire manufacturing sector, and a little under 5% of the staff of the entire manufacturing sector. It is an immensely valuable sector that the government is keen to encourage and help flourish.

Moreover, while total manufacturing output has been limited by some external factors, manufacturing within the aerospace sector has soared since 1997. Last year, the aerospace industry spent just under £1.7 billion on R&D expenditure, of which very roughly three quarters was civil spending and a quarter was defence.

In such a large, important and valuable section of the manufacturing sector, there is a lot of scope for making successful and impactful R&D tax claims.

Encouraging research, enabling growth & creating new markets

In fact, this distribution of benefits has always been the primary motivation behind the HMRC R&D tax credit. To encourage research and development that doesn’t just benefit the company that took the bold move to invest in it, HMRC realised that companies needed additional financial incentives. In other parts of the world a different approach has been taken towards fostering  innovative research projects.

It’s long been argued that the UK needs an organisation equivalent to DARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Department of Defense.  DARPA were the driving force behind many of the R&D projects outlined above, and amongst other things, the agency has been responsible for early stage development into a precursor to Google Maps (created in the 1970’s), cloud computing, Urban Photonic Sandtable Displays USPDs, exaflop computing, the anonymised Tor network, and the world’s fastest aircraft – The F-117.

In a recent report, Dr Andy Harter, chair of the Cambridge Network highlighted that within the UK: “Innovation policy has been based on the idea of funding R&D through grants and tax credits in order to address what economists call ‘market failure”. The report argues that a demand led or ‘technology-pull’ approach, modelled on DARPA, would be a better way to spawn innovations capable of creating entirely new markets, helping to build new world-leading companies.

Given the many ways in which the benefits of aerospace research filter down to improve our everyday lives, we think it’s important that this innovation continues to be encouraged and rewarded. With our expertise in and around UK R&D tax reliefs, we are excited to be a part of this hugely rewarding process. R&D tax credits are an essential consideration for the aerospace industry, and with competition within the sector as fierce as it is, any edge counts.

As aerospace engineering moves onwards, and especially as the private sector becomes more involved, R&D tax credits for the aerospace sector look set to become increasingly important.

Are you developing new products, processes or services in the aerospace sectors? Then the work you’re undertaking may well qualify for R&D tax credits. Speak to an expert today to determine how much they could be worth to you or to answer any questions you may have.

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