Nanotechnology may have a future in space travel--and a bit closer to home, too. Imagine a self-aware airplane that's constantly tracking its own condition. Boeing is already thinking about what it would take to accomplish that.
Most observers agree that the future of nanotechnology is still largely up in the air, and that's just fine with David Swain.
As chief technology officer of aerospace company Boeing, it's his job to figure out how emerging technologies will change the design of next-generation airplanes and spacecraft. And the way he sees it, nanotechnology will be as important to the future of flight as was the jet engine in the 20th century.
Swain became interested in nanotechnology two or three years ago, when he was studying the future of space travel. He tried to imagine what it would take to make orbital jaunts as common as commuter flights. "I realized that it was going to take a huge breakthrough," he says. "Then I found out about nanotech, and thought, 'This could be it!'"
Swain believes one key to practical space travel is the superlightweight materials made possible by nanotech. Both low-weight and superstrong, nanotech materials would make it easier to put into orbit a lighter ship that could stand up to the stresses of the trip and protect passengers. "Some scientists believe you can reduce the weight [of a spacecraft] by a factor of five to 10, with the same strength," he says.
As he studied the topic more closely, Swain began to realize it also could revolutionize aircraft travel. Clearly, the same nanomaterials useful for spacecraft could be used to lower the weight of commercial jets. But there were other opportunities as well. Because nanotech allows the manufacture of ultrasmall and precise sensors, Swain envisioned a jet riddled with the devices, penetrating every system and piece of machinery almost like a nervous system. And the small, ultrafast computers of the nanotech future would be powerful enough to process that mass of sensory data. The result: a self-aware plane that's constantly tracking its own condition.
"We can imagine, in a decade or two, vehicles that we would call superintelligent," Swain says. "You wouldn't have failures that weren't predicted, you suddenly can avoid long inspections. ... It's really a big deal." He says such smart planes would not only be safer, but they'd save airlines a fortune in maintenance and repair costs.
But many challenges are ahead before you can fly the nano skies. It's difficult to take theoretical research and turn it into an actual vehicle, Swain says. "How do we go from the science of doing this in the laboratory to good engineering?" he asks. To clear that hurdle, he makes sure to stay in close content with academics; Boeing engineers meet with them regularly to keep track of where the technology is going. Then, when applications like the superintelligent jet are actually viable, he can have his engineers already up to speed and ready to crank out a product. "This holds great promise," Swain says. "It gives us a tremendous advantage."
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