Sunday, 17 February 2013

Flying Dinosaurs

There was a time when aviation embraced innovation and the pioneers pushed the boundaries of what was possible. Now, aviation is reliable and dependable, but also dull and boring. The 21st century aviation industry is trussed up in regulations that hold it back in the 20th century. No one dare push ahead to make aviation how it ought to be. The recent troubles with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner illustrate that there is a problem, but the apparent problem is not the real problem.
When the model was launched, the Dreamliner was the heralded as the most advanced, most efficient jet liner ever produced. In fact, it is the last evolution of a species of air vehicle that will soon be extinct. The first gas guzzler passenger jet airliner was the British-built Comet. It was innovative at the time as jets were new and cool; but it was also unreliable and thirsty.  Its place in aviation history is as the reference point used for all the jet aircraft produced between then and now, a time span of over half a century of aviation. Compared with the Comet, each has been more efficient than the last. Manufacturers and airlines trumpet the improvements hoping that people will not notice the disingenuous nature of their claims. The reality is that only the newest jet liners are more efficient than the propeller driven aircraft of the 1950s ‒ and not hugely faster either. What have the aero engineers been doing for the last 60 years? The answer is they have been heading in the wrong direction, and the Dreamliner is the latest step.

The 21st century aviation industry is held back by a rule book written in 1944. The key provisions have not changed; including that aviation fuel carried aboard international flights is not subject to tax. This means aircraft designers are stuck with building gas guzzling planes. With fuel so cheap, no airline would buy the sort of low-emissions aircraft that should dominate aviation in the 21st century.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner design team are struggling to solve the problem with their new Lithium batteries that has grounded the fleet. This is like trimming the claws on a dinosaur, a difficult task to undertake safely but ultimately of little consequence. Using new technologies to squeeze more efficiency out of obsolete designs, wastes effort that could be better employed. In the conservative world of aircraft manufacturing, the dinosaur clipping approach is to back off and innovate less. The true nature of the problem is not too much innovation, but too little. In evolutionary terms we do not need small marginal developments but a genetic mutation to usher in a complete new genus of aircraft. The engineers need the freedom to develop these new air vehicles which means throwing out the old rule book.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the last of the 20th century aircraft brought in after its time is past, not the start of the 21st century aviation industry. 

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