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12/13/2001
11:57 AM
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Smarter, Safer Planes Via Nanotech

Boeing chief technology officer David Swain dreams big. Case in point is his vision for commercial aviation safety. Nanotechnology, in particular, could lead to a revolution in airplane design, says Swain, who's also senior VP of engineering and technology at Boeing. "It's as big as going from the propeller to the jet, maybe more," he says.

Scientific breakthroughs at the molecular level will lead to "superintelligent" planes with sophisticated sensors built in. The sensors will tie into computer networks and will make it possible for a plane to identify, communicate, and correct its own problems in-flight. For instance, a plane would automatically reconfigure controls to regain stability if a part malfunctions or is damaged.

Over the past 40 years airplane safety has improved tenfold, Swain says, and we can expect another tenfold increase in the first half of this century. Ultimately, nanotechnology could also make planes five to 10 times lighter. Currently, aircraft manufacturers fight just to get a 3% or 4% improvement in weight.

Swain doesn't expect the industry to realize the full benefits of nanotechnology for 20 to 50 years. But Boeing already has incorporated some nanotechnology in its plane designs, says George Muellner, president of PhantomWorks, which oversees Boeing's R&D. The new approach, called integrated vehicle health-management systems, uses nano and other technologies to embed sensors throughout an aircraft to monitor electronics, hydraulics, pneumatics, and even structural components.

Diagnostic tools started appearing in planes 20 years ago, Muellner says, but they weren't reliable and had limited monitoring capabilities. Today's smaller, lightweight sensors are vastly different, and can help address a significant airline albatross: unscheduled maintenance. If a component is about to fail, a radio signal is automatically sent out so it can be replaced the next time the plane lands. "We're going from diagnostics to prognostics," Muellner says. "We can predict when failure will occur by constantly monitoring a lot more system characteristics."

Boeing expects to integrate structural monitoring and parts ordering in the next five years. Tying these capabilities together will make it possible for the system to alert a parts vendor when a plane signals that a component is nearing failure.

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