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IT Is Key To Aviation Safety, Says Boeing CTO

Company's chief technology officer says technological breakthroughs will allow Boeing to produce 'superintelligent' airplanes that are safer, more reliable, and more affordable.
Boeing CTO David Swain is a man who dreams big. Case in point: his goals for stepping up air travel safety. During the past 40 years, commercial aviation safety has improved tenfold, Swain said recently at First Tuesday, a Chicago IT networking event which drew nearly 1,000 attendees. But that's just the beginning. Expect another tenfold increase during the first half of this century,

To make that happen, Boeing is looking for significant technological advances. Swain, who is also senior VP of engineering and technology at Boeing, spoke enthusiastically about two areas in particular: applying nanotechnology, and harnessing information technology. Scientific breakthroughs at the molecular level could lead to sophisticated sensors in an airplane's structure. Swain envisions "superintelligent vehicles" with sensors tied to computer networks. The planes would identify, communicate, and correct their own problems mid-air. For example, a plane would automatically reconfigure controls to regain stability if a part of it malfunctions or gets damaged.

Boeing also places a premium on two-way broadband connectivity connectivity in its aircraft, as evidenced by its global communications service launched earlier this year, dubbed Connexion by Boeing. Not only could broadband connections replace current airline entertainment systems, but it may play a critical role in security by transmitting information about a plane's condition, or sending real-time video of activity in cabins to ground control.

By leveraging technological breakthroughs, Boeing "will be able to produce 'superintelligent' vehicles that are not only safer, more reliable, and more affordable, but will also be able to do things we can't even imagine today," he said. That optimism stems largely from his strong belief in teamwork: "I do not pretend that making improvements in all of these areas will be easy," said Swain, "but I see no limits that cannot be addressed if we band together and work together." - Sandra Swanson