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SABIC to Address Key Requirements of Aerospace Grade Materials

As Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) begin to play a more central role in the global aerospace and defense market, SABIC is addressing key industry needs for genuine aerospace grade materials that meet a number of stringent operational requirements.

There is an increasing need for advanced materials that will allow UAVs to fly farther and longer, despite the size of their payloads. The explosive growth of UAVs—together with the growing workloads expected of these aircraft—represents an opportunity for manufacturers to advance from materials commonly used in the radio-controlled (RC) aircraft hobby world and utilize more sophisticated solutions for these demanding applications.

SABIC has met this challenge with its ULTEM™ XP060 foam. During a recent project for BAE Systems, which developed the Silver FoxTM UAV for the military,  the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI) used SABIC’s ULTEM foam to create an aftermarket fairing assembly for external payloads that reduced drag and restored system performance.  

“SABIC’s collaboration with UDRI demonstrates our commitment to continually innovate new material solutions that enable our customer’s success.  Our ULTEM foam allows for maximum range and endurance by providing a solution that is strong and lightweight while meeting all of BAE Systems’ critical performance requirements for the external payload fairing on the Silver Fox,” said  Kim Choate, Transportation marketing director, for SABIC’s Innovative Plastics business.

ULTEM XP060 foam. Image credits: Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC).

“As the UAV market continues to grow and innovate, SABIC’s ULTEM foam offers customers a material that is superior to older, inadequate alternatives, such as RC hobby-grade styrene foams or vacu-formed hard-shell plastic fairings,” he said.

Due to the minimal remaining volume internal to the Silver Fox UAV, the military customer elected to mount an oversized payload module and an inertial sensor on the exterior fuselage of the aircraft. This presented a challenge considering that the payload shapes were non-aerodynamic and created significant drag, having a negative impact on the aircraft’s range and endurance.

BAE Systems asked UDRI to create aftermarket fairing assemblies for the external payloads to solve these challenges. By using SABIC’s ULTEM XP060 foam—which added a mere 3 ounces of weight to the UAV—UDRI and BAE Systems were able to reduce 92% of the profile drag of the un-faired payload and sensor module, and aircraft endurance was restored.

“ULTEM foam was the ideal fit, meeting or exceeding all of the operational requirements for the Silver Fox UAV application. It is the only material able to deliver on the stringent requirements for UAVs, including light weight, strength, chemical resistance, transparency to radio frequency and processability,” said Rick Scudder, Director of the UDRI Center for UAV Exploitation (CUE).  “ULTEM XP060 foam was the only material found that met the full list of performance properties for this challenge, and enabled the UAV to accommodate an additional customer payload without sacrificing performance.”

Genuine Aerospace Material

Although many attributes of small UAVs grew out of advanced RC hobby applications, the Silver Fox is a genuine military aircraft, and UDRI needed a genuine, proven aerospace material. The material had to fulfill many operational requirements, including being lightweight and stiff, but more importantly, remaining machinable by computer numerical control (CNC) milling and maintaining radio frequency transparency. Additionally, it must neither melt nor deform in high heat environments, nor shrink in cold environments.

With these requirements under consideration, UDRI ultimately determined that ULTEM foam was the ideal material for the application. ULTEM foam is highly processable and it is compatible with CNC milling to precise tolerances. ULTEM foam’s machinability means that it does not need molds, forms or tooling to achieve complex shapes and contours, ultimately translating into reduced total system costs. Additionally, because of its amorphous nature, it tolerates most of the adhesives used in the market today. It is also compatible with lamination and composite skins, including thermosets and thermoplastics, as well as metal.

A Growing Market

The UAV market has potential not only for military purposes, but also for civil aviation applications, including First Responder support, wildfire mapping, weather monitoring and telecommunications. It is predicted that, if the opening of the National Airspace to civil UAVs occurs in 2015 as planned, the market potential for UAVs between 2015 and 2017 will be around $13.6 billion (AUVSI Economic Report 2013).

The U.S. military UAV market is similarly expect to expand in the coming years: a report conducted by Market Research Media states that the U.S. military UAV market is projected to grow at a 12% CAGR, reaching $18.7 billion in 2018. The report finds that the U.S. military UAV market will generate $86.5 billion revenues over the period 2013-2018.

As this data demonstrates, there is an increased opportunity for UAVs to take their place within the global aerospace market, and this will require the implementation of advanced materials. ULTEM XP060 foam allowed UDRI to meet BAE Systems’ and the military’s needs, and the CUE has since created fairing assemblies for two other external payloads.  

Many Potential Applications

ULTEM XP060 foam is an excellent candidate material for a broad spectrum of UAV applications such as wing cores, nose cones, cowlings, control surfaces, insulating panels, radomes and fairings.  

As the missions for UAVs continue to expand in terms of scope and endurance, ULTEM foam is positioned to meet more aggressive operational requirements for radio frequency transparency and high heat. Additionally, it has potential applications in the rail, marine, and automotive industries–anywhere that honeycomb structures are used in strong, lightweight core applications.  

The University of Dayton Research Institute chose ULTEMTM foam, a proven aerospace grade material, for external payload fairings aboard the BAE Systems Silver FoxTM UAV. ULTEM foam is highly processable and it is compatible with CNC milling. ULTEM foam’s machinability means that it does not need molds, forms or tooling to achieve complex shapes and contours, ultimately translating into reduced total system costs. Additionally, because of its amorphous nature, it tolerates most of the adhesives used in the market today. It is also compatible with lamination and composite skins, including thermosets, thermoplastics, and aramids as well as metal.


Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) ranks among the world’s top petrochemical companies. The company is among the world’s market leaders in the production of polyethylene, polypropylene and other advanced thermoplastics, glycols, methanol and fertilizers.

SABIC recorded a net profit of SR 24.72 billion (US$ 6.59 billion) in 2012. Sales revenues for 2012 totaled SR 189 billion (US$ 50.40 billion). Total assets stood at SR 338 billion (US$ 90.13 billion) at the end of 2012.

SABIC’s businesses are grouped into Chemicals, Polymers, Performance Chemicals, Fertilizers, Metals and Innovative Plastics. SABIC has significant research resources with 17 dedicated Technology & Innovation facilities in Saudi Arabia, the USA, the Netherlands, Spain, Japan, India and South Korea. The company operates in more than 40 countries across the world with around 40,000 employees worldwide.

SABIC manufactures on a global scale in Saudi Arabia, the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific.

Headquartered in Riyadh, SABIC was founded in 1976 when the Saudi Arabian Government decided to use the hydrocarbon gases associated with its oil production as the principal feedstock for production of chemicals, polymers and fertilizers. The Saudi Arabian Government owns 70 percent of SABIC shares with the remaining 30 percent held by private investors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

About Innovative Plastics

SABIC’s Innovative Plastics business is a leading, global supplier of engineering thermoplastics with an 80-year history of breakthrough solutions that solve its customers’ most pressing challenges. Today, Innovative Plastics is a multi-billion-dollar company with operations in more than 35 countries and approximately 9,000 employees worldwide.

The company continues to lead the plastics industry with customer collaboration and continued investments in new polymer technologies, global application development, process technologies, and environmentally responsible solutions that serve diverse markets such as Healthcare, Transportation, Automotive, Electrical, Lighting and Consumer Electronics. The company’s extensive product portfolio includes thermoplastic resins, coatings, specialty compounds, film, and sheet. Innovative Plastics is a wholly owned subsidiary of Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC).

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