Towards Safer, Faster and Leaner Travels

Rahul Devnath
Published: December 2014

Air travel needs to be revamped with growing safety threats, and improved technology is our best bet

travelLook up into the skies today at a passing aeroplane and chances are that the view will not be much different to the one that you would have been 60 years ago. Back then and now, most airliners have two wings, a cigar-shaped fuselage and a trio of vertical and horizontal stabilizers at the tail. If it isn’t broke, the mantra has been, why fix it, particularly when your design needs to travel through the air at several hundred kilometers an hour packed with people.

However, it would be wrong to say that nothing at all has changed in the last few decades. Newer models of airliners might not come out every year like cars do, but there is more and more infusion of technology in there. Behind the simple successful design, plane manufactures have always been on the cutting edge of technology realm in an effort to make our air travel safer, faster and cheaper too.

The ever rising fuel prices, increasingly stringent pollution norms, as well as a surge in demand for air travel, have translated in the plane designers going back to their drawing boards to bring out better products. With a backdrop of historic aviation disasters of all times, the year 2014 is apt act as the stepping stone for implementation of technologies of tomorrow. With the likes of MH-17 and MH-370 disaster, the pressing need for radical new shapes , better engine technologies and even installing counter measures against armed threats have finally given a call for the biggest ever shake-up in air travel since de Havilland introduced the first commercial jet airliner in 1952.

Earlier improvements in powered flight primarily focused on building improved and quieter turbine engines with higher performance and improved fuel consumption. There have been also huge strides in computer controls and fly-by-wire systems in the last decade. But despite these advances, aviation engineers know there is still much to be done. For example, despite modern planes being up to 70% more efficient than those built 60 years ago, aviation fuel expenditures now account for a quarter of an airlines operating expenses, placing them on a par with industry costs. We take a look at few crucial technologies, which are increasingly changing the way we travel for better.

COMPOSITES

When it comes to airliners, weight is money. The heavier a plane is, the more fuel it takes to fly it. The more fuel it consumes, the more the cost increases. Hence, the maximum emphasis has been on the development, strong but lightweight plastics and composite materials rather than metals, reducing the weight of planes and the amount of fuel they need to burn.

Moving from traditional metals like aluminum, composites have allowed the development of “radical” new planes like the giant Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, both of which are now a common sight at Indian airports.

dreamlinerAmong the current generation of aircrafts, fibreglass is the most common composite material used and consists of glass fibres embedded in a resin matrix. While its secondary advantages include, high corrosion resistance and resistance to damage from fatigue, it’s the lesser weight which has huge cost impact for the operators. Furthermore, the greatest advantage of using carbon fibre as opposed to traditional metal is that it gives designers much more freedom when trying to juggle the conflicting demands of aerodynamic efficiency, fuel savings and reducing engine noise. The airliners of the future are likely to be radically different. Such shapes could include blended wing designs, where the fuselage and wings merge into each other – like some military aircraft today.

In the coming years, almost all aircrafts will be made entirely of composites. Aircraft manufacturers today are looking forward to more exotic material for manufacturing of composites, for example the Spider silk. Spider silk exhibits high ductility, allowing stretching of a fibre up to 140% of its normal length. Spider silk also holds its strength at temperatures as low as -40°C. The increased strength, toughness and ductility of such a composite will allow greater stresses to be applied to the part or joining before catastrophic failure occurs. While it may sound like fantasy today, greater use of composites will change the way we have come to recognize airplanes forever.

BLENDED WINGLETS

Winglets have been growing in popularity as an add-on to fuel hungry airplanes around the planet. The basic idea behind winglets has been around for decades: they cut the drag on an aircraft by reducing the whirling air at the edges of the wings. For the fixed cost of installing a winglet, the carrier can save millions in fuel costs over the lifetime of an aircraft. And as winglet designs improve, the airlines are keen to implement the technology and save more cash.

You have probably noticed the dramatic winglet design on many newer Boeing 737 used by Indian operators like Jet Airways. When employed, this design effectively looks like the wing edge is folded up perpendicular with the ground. Compare them to just few years older aircraft, they might look generations older without these winglets. Airbus uses a similar device called the Sharklets, which are smaller and go underneath the wing as well. However from just being an “upgrade option”, winglets are now part of newer airframe designs such as those used in the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.

Furthermore, winglets have the aerodynamic impact of increasing the aspect ratio without necessitating structural reinforcements through increases in the span or wing bending moment. They also increase the wing buffet margin, which allows the aircraft to fly at higher altitudes, where fuel mileage is increased.

COUNTERMEASURES AND MISSILE DEFENCES

defenceAir Force One, the famou Boeing 747 used by the President of United States, is protected by electronic jammers from most missiles, including one that may have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Russian-Ukrainian border. So, can’t the commercial airliners be protected, too? The concept of arming the airliners with countermeasures like chaffs and flares, have been a debate ever since the development of small, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like the American Stinger nearly 35 years ago, and the resulting fears that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The Malaysian airlines flight 17 was not the first to be shot down and in fact shows up a very alarming trend of rogue sophisticated missile systems being fired at civil airliners.

The need for a defence system for airliners was officially confirmed by the Pentagon in 2002, after a pair of Russian-made shoulder-launched missiles narrowly missed an Israeli Boeing 757 as it took off from the Kenyan city of Mombassa with 271 aboard. However in comparison MH17 was shut down by a bigger, radar-guided missile at 33000ft. Not surprisingly, to date, terrorist-launched missiles have been responsible for as many as 1,000 civilian deaths, making it one of the biggest threats to commercial airliners. Defeating missiles is a common problem with all the aircrafts up in air. While fighter planes have active jammers and can outmaneuver a missile in pursuit, it’s not an easy task for a transport aircraft to do the same. US Air Force’s C-17 transport aircrafts have been outfitted with sophisticated equipment to protect them from Stingers, SA-7s and other portable heat-seeking missiles favored by terrorists. However, this technology costs a whopping US $5 million per plane, a price too exorbitant for private airliners to adopt.

But that was then, now with increasingly “hot and hostile” zones around the world, it seems the natural requirement of safeguarding the planes is no more an option but a necessity, and hence the mass production of such equipment is slated to lower the production cost of such sophisticated systems substantially.

defence-qEnter the Northrop Grumman’s Guardian system. Guardian is a technology designed by USA’s Northrop Grumman Corporation to detect and foil missile attacks launched against aircraft by terrorists located on the ground. Guardian help the commercial airplanes to elude infrared (IR), or heat-seeking, missiles. FedEx Express became the first air carrier to deploy the Guardian on a commercial flight in September 2006, when it equipped one of its MD-11 freighters with the pod and subsequently equipped eight more aircrafts for evaluation purposes.

From using fake bombs to hijacking aeroplanes to using sophisticated missile systems to bring down one, the threats, their perception and their defence have constantly evolved. In the coming years, threats to airplanes will continue to evolve. This decade where threats are growing is bound to see some breakthrough technologies becoming a part of our regular travels, in yet another bid to make our skies safer.

 - Rahul is a well travelled Bangalore based photo journalist with experience in reporting, writing and communication. Currently, onboard The Jain University Press, he specializes in aviation and technology.