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State-of-the-Craft: Aviation Bells & Whistles

State-of-the-Craft: Aviation Bells & Whistles

Technology continues to have a growing impact on aviation, with the new millennium seeing the development of the biggest passenger planes, the fastest, most agile and stealthiest fighters, private space travel, unmanned aerial vehicles, and the joy of flight brought to the amateur pilot as never before. We’ve also witnessed the weird and wonderful, with flying cars, human-powered helicopters, and electric-powered aeroplanes joining their more conventional brethren, if not in the sky, then certainly on the drawing board.  

When I started learning to fly in the early 1990s, GPS technology was still years away from becoming an accepted part of the private pilot’s tools of trade; training aeroplanes were generally Cessnas and Pipers manufactured in the 1960s and glass cockpits were the preserve of state-of-the-art airliners.

Fast forward to the present and GPS is a common means of navigation for pilots of all levels; training aeroplanes are not only modern, sophisticated and fast, but more often than not, they include glass cockpit technology; while state-of-the-art airliner technology continues to amaze.

Indeed, as aviation has evolved, every sector of the industry continues to be touched by technological advancement. Many businesses have come and gone, merged or been taken over, and some have been left behind by the growth of technology. This is the evolutionary nature of any industry, and the aviation industry in particular, where tech smarts are essential to survival. However, some readjustment of the industry appears to be underway.

Some smaller or older less efficient airliners have been retired, and new aircraft have been manufactured to replace them. Other new technology has been developed to satisfy the industry, including regulators and society’s expectations for issues such as lower costs, greater safety, and lower emissions.

Last but not least, there is the internet, a tool that has become increasingly prevalent in aviation. Yes, technology has grabbed aviation by the horns and thrust it well and truly into the 21st century. So how effective has technology been and what benefits has it had on an industry that continues to grow at unprecedented speed.

The first 12 years of the new millennium has seen major breakthroughs in aeroplane technology, with the coming decade promising breakthroughs such as combat-ready unmanned aerial vehicles, commercial rocket planes, hypersonic jets, and more.

Unmanned aerial vehicles are coming into their own, taking on reconnaissance and attack missions while keeping pilots out of harm’s way. In a sign of things to come, an entire New York Air National Guard fighter wing switched over from manned to unmanned aircraft in 2008. The RQ-4 Global Hawk takes UAVs to new heights, fulfilling missions formerly assigned to manned spy planes. Now the fighter-size Northrop Grumman X-47 is ushering in a new era of naval UAVs by making autonomous aircraft carrier landings. Concepts for the next-generation UAVs have stealthy features, a wider slate of missions, including air defence suppression, and possibly even air defence against other aircraft.

Fighter Jets
The F-35 Lightning II, which rolled out in 2006, represents the culmination of all the best air-to-ground strike technology developed in the last century, and added stealth to the package. The last word in stealthy fighter technology, the F-22 Raptor excels as a combat plane, but the lack of demand and its enormous price tag has been problematic. The trend for fighter jets in the 21st century may turn out to be unmanned fighters, endangering the future need for fighter pilots.

If we want to wean ourselves off oil, aircraft and cars will have to switch to alternative fuels. But will biofuels and batteries that are feasible for cars work for aeroplanes with their much more demanding power plants? Flight tests with bio-blends by several major airlines has shown that they’re serious about developing the tech.

Passenger Planes
The Airbus A380 made its first flight in 2005, ending the Boeing 747′s 40-year reign as the world’s largest passenger aeroplane. Not to be outdone, Boeing introduced its 787 Dreamliner and now seeks to bring its product line into the 21st century with 80 percent composite construction—which means a lighter, stronger, more corrosion-resistant plane—head-up displays in the cockpit, the industry’s biggest passenger windows and more fuel-efficient engines. Operators of both aircraft hope these new designs will produce an era of more comfortable, more fuel-efficient air travel, with increased cabin pressure and bigger windows made possible by lighter, stronger fuselages and structural wing components made of composites instead of metals.

Private Flight
Recreational aviation is reportedly outgrowing traditional GA and with the fast, modern aircraft available, that’s no surprise. Private flight has become affordable, indeed, more desirable, for a new generation of pilots, with electric and solar-powered planes seemingly perfect for this small, low-power category.

Rocket Planes
In 2004, SpaceShipOne proved that a privately built craft could fly high enough and fast enough to leave the atmosphere. The experimental craft’s successor, SpaceShipTwo, unveiled in December 2009, has already proven the financial feasibility of routine commercial flights out of the atmosphere—with hundreds of passengers already committed to $200,000 joy rides operated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. These rocket planes, powered by a single rocket motor in place of a prop or jet, and with a top speed of Mach 3 and a ceiling of just over 62 miles, will never reach the speed (Mach 25) and altitude (200 miles or so) required for orbital flight. Instead, they could blaze the trail for rapid point-to-point travel on Earth, combining some of the best features of spacecraft and aircraft in a hybrid that may turn out to be the 21st century’s answer to the Concorde.

Launched from a B-52, the proposed X-51 hypersonic cruise missile could travel 600 miles in 10 minutes to strike elusive, fleeting targets. The new millennium has seen the first successful demonstrations of scramjet technology, which allows turbine-less, air-breathing engines to top Mach 5 speeds in flight. Those first experiments could sustain combustion in flight for only seconds at a time. The coming decade could bring the first hypersonic cruise missiles, opening the door for manned flights. The storied Concorde—relegated as it was to transatlantic flights to spare innocent bystanders on the ground a constant series of sonic booms—pointed up the flaws in even supersonic jets as passenger birds, so hypersonics may remain military vehicles for the foreseeable future.

Helicopter giant Bell is unabashedly claiming a number of firsts for the proposed B525 “Relentless”. They claim it will be the first commercial helicopter to define the super-medium class by combining best-in-class performance and passenger amenities with maximised situational awareness of the ARC Horizon flight deck.

Bell claims the 525 will be the first commercial helicopter to incorporate fly-by-wire flight controls, delivering superior handling qualities and increased levels of safety. Bell also states that the 525 will be the first commercial helicopter to incorporate the Garmin G5000H, a touchscreen avionics suite, for enhanced situational awareness and improved pilot integration.

The landscape oriented displays have multi-pane capability that allowspilots to view multiple pages side-by-side on any of the displays. Therefore, pilots can simultaneously view their primary flight display, maps, charts, checklists and system synoptics, HTAWS, TCAS, flight planning, weather or video input pages.

And finally, the Relentless will be the first commercial helicopter to incorporate LATD tail boom technology for improved hover performance. That’s a ‘relentless’ lot of firsts and a lot of state-of-the-art technology!

Fixed Wing
Market forces have seen aviation hit a bit of a low point in recent years. Airlines struggling to make profits are cutting staff and losing millions of dollars in profits; while commercial enterprises are hamstrung by a slow economy and peoples’ reluctance to part with their hard-earned cash. But there is one sector of the industry that is thriving: recreational aviation.

So why is this sector flourishing? Try fun, modern aircraft, and cheaper rates. Try the opportunity for pilots to build their own aircraft, with a vast array of kitplanes available for the novice to construct in their home garage.

Yes, recreational aviation is growing fast, with high-tech aircraft being developed to enable a new generation of pilots to experience the satisfaction of building and flying their own planes.

Modern technology, modern materials and clever design are gradually amending the unwritten “rules” about the degrees of compromise necessary in aircraft design. The New Zealand-designed Falcomposite Furio is a wonderful example of this. For example, a fast aircraft usually requires a powerful engine, making it thirsty and expensive to run. However, using only 20 hp more than a Cessna 172, the Furio cruises at 175 knots (75% at 7,000 feet), 50–60 knots faster and travels around 100 miles further (than the 172).

The Furio is made from less than 30 parts, construction time is minimal and the quality of the finished product is flawless.

Falcomposite designer Giovanni Nustrini adds that apart from designing a cutting-edge aeroplane, the company offers expertise in other areas.

“Our main activities comprise of aircraft and component design and prototyping; aircraft production and manufacturing of high tech composite components for aviation and other industries,” Nustrini said. “Sophisticated computer modelling techniques, stringent methodology reviews and rigorous scientific analysis ARE the future.”

Through innovative businesses like Falcomposite, advances are being made in Australasian aviation, with New Zealand and Australia just as capable of producing excellence as their European and American counterparts.

Victoria-based GippsAero is another innovator. The company recently completed the first flight of its new aircraft, the GA10, the first single-engine turbo-prop to be designed and developed in Australia, a 10-seater based on the GA8 AIRVAN utility.

“The first flight was a great success, as it showed that the GA10 retained the inherent stability and docile flying qualities of the GA8,” GippsAero engineering manager Gerhard Jordaan said of the 10-seater, which is based on the successful GA8 AIRVAN.

The prototype will now undergo an intensive program to gain a CASA Type Certificate – the certification process being a crucial element in innovative aviation designers’ plans. Too much new technology and the process may take longer than commercially viable – a fine line to walk and deep pockets to maintain however it looks as though the GA10 has hurdled most of those obstacles and anticipates 2013 customer delivery slots.

GPS navigation is a technology widely used in almost every car worldwide, whether it’s dashboard navigation or built into the car directly. The use of such technology has become increasingly common in aviation too, and is a terrific tool for aviators of all levels because of its ease of use, speed and accuracy.

In time, GPS will most likely become the primary means of electronic navigation. As the cost of GPS receivers continues to decrease, their applications will continue to increase. Cars already tell drivers where to turn; grocery carts are being created to guide shoppers to the correct aisles for specific items; and aeroplanes are using GPS units for aerial navigation.

There are a bewildering number of GPS options available.

One such is produced by UK company Airbox which recently launched a 5 inch portable GPS called the Clarity 2.0 whose high res screen gives pilots vital and visually arresting information.

“Every day we see more and more GPS devices on the market boasting an ever increasing list of features that nine times out of ten a pilot will never use in the cockpit,” said company co-founder and technical director William Moore. “It’s better to concentrate upon pilots actually needs and how best to present that information to them without a multitude of distracting and unnecessary bells, whistles and flashing lights.”

Their latest release, the RunwayHD, exploits the wildly popular Apple platform iTunes, coming in a free to download app for the iPad and iPhone in Australia and New Zealand. The nifty and convenient download seamlessly places an upgraded version of Airbox’s flight and navigation software on the screen or phone in someone’s lap. This niche is also occupied by the pioneering application from OzRunways who have been making large strides in the marketplace.

Staying at home, one of the most critical navigation aids is airport lighting, a fact that is easily forgotten. One innovation presently being developed is the use of solar powered lighting systems which Australian company Avlite has been admirably servicing. Their airfield lighting solutions include solar-powered LED taxiway, runway edge, and threshold lights, airport beacons, barricade lights and a powered LED heliport light for Offshore Helicopter Landing Areas.

Avlite’s most recent technological advancements include the move towards the use of a single LED within a uniquely designed single LED optic, protected by a tough polycarbonate outer lens, which ensures high power to light output efficiency and increased light output uniformity and conspicuity.

Furthermore, Avlite’s lighting fixtures and systems can be wirelessly controlled anywhere in the airfield, from the ground or within the ATC tower by use of a handheld controller or from the aircraft by a VHF receiver using an encrypted mesh network.”

So how does Avlite pioneer future technologies? “We invest in cutting edge equipment for superior efficiency and quality control,” said CEO Chris Proctor. “Keeping the manufacturing process in-house is the key.”

While still on the subject of solar technology, the potential for renewable energy air travel recently took a massive step forward when an aircraft known as the Solar Impulse completed the world’s first intercontinental flight powered by the sun on a 19 hour journey between Spain and Morocco. The technology behind solar powered aircraft is still in its infancy but the Solar Impulse’s success has proved that such aircraft have a future.

“The aircraft can now fly day and night. It’s quite a show … It’s a technology we can trust,” said the plane’s co-founder, Andre Borschberg.

The Solar Impulse project began in 2003 with a 10-year budget of €90m and has involved engineers from Swiss lift-maker Schindler and research aid from Belgian chemicals group Solvay.

The plane, which requires 12,000 solar cells, embarked on its first flight in April 2010 and completed a 26-hour flight, a record flying time for a solar powered aircraft, three months later.

Solar Impulse’s flight was also a trial run for a much longer round-the-world flight scheduled for 2014. The team is preparing for that attempt by building a second, larger plane with watertight wings that can fly in rainy conditions for five to six days in a row without landing.

The team’s current aircraft made history in 2010 as the first manned plane to fly for 24 hours using only the sun’s energy.

Engine technology has advanced tremendously in the last dozen or so years, and not just at the top-end, where state-of-the-art turbofans power new-age airliners across the globe.

Reciprocating engine technology in aviation has also advanced tremendously, even if by outward appearances these latest aircraft engines seem unchanged. There is a misconception among many that, because the engines being built by Continental, Lycoming, Rotax and others look similar to those that have been powering GA aeroplanes for years — and indeed are based on the same basic certifications — they haven’t advanced very far in the last 30 or 40 years. That’s flat-out wrong.

One of the biggest improvements has come in overall build quality. Aircraft engine makers have spent many millions of dollars to improve and automate their manufacturing processes for much tighter build tolerances, and that has translated to improved durability. They’ve also perfected their fuel delivery systems, introduced advanced coatings to many components and, probably the biggest breakthrough, connected the engines to advanced aviation-grade computers that are capable of monitoring just about every conceivable engine-related parameter — a million times over in the span of a few minutes. Advances have also been made in turbocharger technology, and several manufacturers are now working on alternative fuel technologies, not to mention highly fuel-efficient diesel engines that are designed to burn jet-A

Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) engineers have improved its Rotax 912 engine to deliver 38 to 70 per cent better fuel efficiency in a new model known as the Rotax 912 iS. After testing the new engine, Tine Tomazic, engineer and pilot for Pipistrel Aircraft, said: “The injection system ensures the best fuel and air mixture on each cylinder at every possible altitude while delivering the same 100 hp as the Rotax 912 ULS engine, producing fewer emissions. Based on these facts, I would say that the Rotax 912 iS engine is a powerful, economic and more fuel-efficient engine.”

BRM engineers have concentrated upon enhancements such as a modern fuel injection system and digital engine control unit (ECU) for optimal fuel and air mixture at any altitude for la onger flight range and CO2 emission reduction. The development of a 4-stroke, 4-cylinder 100 hp aircraft engine with a redundant electronic fuel injection system is a first in the industry. The new engine also provides an extended TBO time of 2,000 hours: the same as the original 912.

Life was completely different before the internet came along. There was a time that we sent letters in the mail hoping that they would reach their destination within a reasonable amount of time. The thing is, mail often went missing or for some unforeseen reason, delivery was delayed. But the World Wide Web has changed the world in more than one way.

Businesses used to rely on the local patrons in their general area. Today, their products can whizz around the world with a few clicks of the keyboard. It has never been easier to keep in contact with customers as it is today.

Email keeps us from having to go to the post office and drop our letters into a mail box. It also saves us from having to buy stamps. Email provides that coveted instant gratification that we all love as well. Write the letter, click on send and within a few minutes the recipient is able to read your latest lyrically penned news. Waiting and wondering periods have all but disappeared because of this one little piece of technology.

Possibly the best thing about the internet is the sharing of information. There are some things that only experience can teach you. People are willing to share their experiences with the world. There are great sources of reliable information flowing through the veins of the internet that give us unlimited help. All you have to do is Google it, and chances are, you will find helpful information on whatever you want to know.

The internet has altered our means of labour  in so many ways. Although some of it is good and some of it is bad, one thing is for sure: it’s not going away anytime soon. Through necessity, aviation businesses are embracing online technology, with many certain the internet is the way of the future.

GippsAero is certainly convinced of the internet’s value.

“The internet is a fantastic tool for businesses and customers alike,” says GippsAero’s marketing guru, Mark McNamara. “From the client side, the net represents a sophisticated research tool, offering buyers access to a vast library of information on which they can make decisions. The advent of web 2.0 adds another dimension to the user experience, in that it is now much easier for people to share ideas and feedback with the community.  We are now able to access many communities that were previously difficult to reach, both through advertising, as well as social media forums.”

“We are also able to communicate with our business partners, dealers, and support network more effectively, being able to quickly share images, video, and real time data which helps punctual and swift reposnes to customer queries.

GippsAero also takes advantage of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and is currently building an Airvan community page where members can share stories, photos and videos.

And as far as the internet’s future goes, “we see the ongoing development of forums where individuals and organisations can share information and ideas. There will also be an increase in the number of aviation business and flight tools available via the web, accessible anywhere, to support decision making.”

However, McNamara noted that the limited accessibility of the internet to clients in remote areas could be improved. “The limitations are often associated with bandwidth and scope (location), so increasing these two attributes will make the web applications available to a broader audience.”

Moorabbin-based Skylines Aviation Supply Shop has been in business since 1988, and has forged an online presence for the past eight years. For owner Ron Limon, the decision to embark on the internet path was a simple one.

“Everyone trades online and we can provide an overnight service to all capital cities,” he said. “Being online is convenient – people often prefer to browse in the privacy of their own homes and in their own time.”

Limon added that the internet has made doing business easier and admitted to using Facebook as a marketing and advertising tool. “Being online is quick and easy and enables pilots to keep abreast of our latest updates,” he said. “In the next five years I hope to expand the business more online.”

Andrew Shand of Downunder Pilot Shop has been involved in aviation since he started training for his PPL as a 16-year-old. Now 41, Shand says the company has had an online presence since they opened for business in Cairns 10 years ago. “It’s the way customers shop these days,” Shand told Aviator. “And it’s a specialist industry so there is a need to reach as many people as possible, especially our customers who live in rural areas.”

Downunder started business in Cairns in 2002, expanded to New Zealand as an online-only enterprise a year later, and in 2004, opened its first retail store in its current base of Napier, New Zealand. A case of the tail wagging the dog in terms of business models but it has worked and was probably an astute and foresighted move with the possibility of another bricks and mortar store in Queensland funded in part by their continued success on the internet.

It’s not just small to medium businesses that are embracing online technology in day-to-day operations. Airlines are also members of the online club: traditional airline business models are evolving rapidly to exploit the growth of mobile smart technology.

“According to a recent survey, adoption of specialised mobile aviation applications has risen dramatically over the past few years. Websites optimised for mobile access and bar-coded boarding passes sent to smartphones are seeing double-digit growth with mobility optimisation for websites forecast to grow exponentially. Mobile phone-based boarding will increase and other paper and card-based applications such as baggage receipts, card access to premium lounges, and cash and credit card payments will inevitably be replaced by mobile applications. In the meantime, use of wireless devices by airport staff to support aircraft maintenance will continue to grow.”

Clearly, aviation is being thrust into the future by technology, and at a velocity of knots that’s virtually unstoppable. What will be next? How about flying cars and one way space travel to Mars? Too radical? Read on …

An American aviation company called Terrafugia recently announced that its prototype “transition street airplane” completed its maiden flight in Plattsburgh, New York. On schedule to be available for purchase by the end of the year, the street-legal mini-plane with collapsible wings will cost US$279,000.

The company says it has already accepted 100 orders, including from a surveyor, a real estate developer and a good old-fashioned fun-seeker.

Amazingly, hot on the heels of Terrafugia’s announcement, a second company declared that its own flying car prototype successfully completed its first test flights. The company, PAL-V (for personal air and land vehicle) posted a video to YouTube.

But that’s where the similarities end. The PAL-V looks more like a mini-helicopter than a plane. Unlike the Transition, which needs ample runway space in order to achieve liftoff, the Dutch chopper’s rotor gets it off the ground without the need for much room.

The two have similar flying ranges: the Transition’s is around 400 miles with top airspeed of 91 knots (105 mph). The PAL-V’s range is between 315 and 350 miles, and it can do up to 95 knots (110 mph) in the air and on the ground.

Strictly speaking, neither the Transition nor the PAL-V looks or feels a lot like a flying car. But the Transition has been cleared to drive on US highways with its wings folded up. At $300,000, the PAL-V will be only slightly more expensive, and its maker is still on the hunt for investors to help bring their chopper to market.

Meanwhile, onto the Red Planet: Mars. A new private space firm from the Netherlands called Mars One is attempting to send four astronauts on a one-way journey to Mars in 2023. The company intends to create a ”habitable settlement” that will support settlers while they live and work on Mars. Every two years after 2023 an additional crew will arrive, enabling what they describe as a real living, growing community on Mars.

The pitch is simple: a Mars mission that will allow the participants to emigrate to the red planet, never to return. The trip will be one way, allowing those who go to live and work on Mars for the rest of their lives. The company says a ‘return ticket’ is pretty much impossible when talking about the Red Planet.

It’s certainly an ambitious idea fraught with dangers. The founders of Mars One are undaunted noting, “the elements needed for a viable living system are already present on Mars, so we can keep the number of launches down. For example, the location Mars One has chosen contains water ice in the ground which can be extracted through heat and used to drink, bathe with, or used to feed crops, but can also be manipulated to create oxygen. Mars even has natural sources of nitrogen, another element of the air we breathe. Certainly, we will always send up supplies like new computers or complex spare parts, but we will also provide the pioneers with machinery that will make them increasingly more independent from Earth. As soon as possible they should have a method to construct a larger habitat using local materials and a machine that can produce plastic components.”

This may sound like a rather crazy scheme, but the company has attracted some fairly influential supporters including a Nobel Prize winning Professor, Dr. Gerard Hooft who says, ”Mars One is an extraordinarily daring initiative by people with vision and imagination.”

“What does science gain from this?” Hooft ponders. “Well, there are also scientific Mars missions. They cost a fraction of what this project will allocate. They are all robotic missions, but in the end science will be guaranteed to gain a great deal from human presence on various celestial bodies in our solar system. Universities don’t have the money for that. National governments have immediate priorities elsewhere. This project seems to me to be the only way to fulfill dreams of mankind’s expansion into space. It sounds like an amazingly fascinating experiment. Let’s get started!”

Yes, the world of aviation technology knows no boundaries..apart from the availability of natural resources and conditions to fuel its advance. Step to the front of the class, ‘green aviation’ – another area that is rapidly gathering significant momentum.

So what does the future of green aircraft look like? NASA recently gave aviation enthusiasts a peek by unveiling what’s coming out of the agency’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project, including three new aircraft designs put forth by some of the industry’s manufacturing giants.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were awarded close to $11 million by the agency to put forth ideas for future aircraft that reduced fuel requirements by 50 percent, released 75 percent fewer emissions and produced 83 percent less airport noise than aircraft that first entered service in 1998, the standard used for the project.

In answer to that challenge, Boeing put forth a composite wing body design inspired by the success of the X-48. Equipped with Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines positioned on top of the wing’s vertical tails, the design aims to guard against excessive ground noise while decreasing drag through improved hybrid laminar flow control.

Northrop Grumman also chose to go with an aerodynamic flying wing design, one with four Rolls Royce engines implanted within the aircraft’s upper surfaces that looks like the company’s earlier B-2.

Lockheed Martin’s proposal looks quite different, relying on a boxed wing design and a Rolls Royce Liberty Works Ultra Fan Engine with a bypass ratio 5 times higher than technology in use today.

While all three aircraft designs cut CO2 emissions during takeoff and landing in half, they did not quite meet the 50 percent fuel burn reduction requirement, producing varied and inconclusive results in regard to noise reduction.

NASA officials said they were encouraged by the results of the study and that they will help guide the direction of research dollars in the near future.

Now that’s just what the aviation industry wants to hear. Show us the money!

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