Electronic Design

A Key Issue: Just When Do You Update Your Technology?

When something is ready, that doesn't necessarily mean that it will be on every airplane that's rolled out. An important issue to us is what we call the "insertion point."

We may have something ready, but it might be so radically different that we will decide to wait for a new derivative airplane model before we introduce it. Or, we may wait until we make a significant change in a production run of an airplane. In that case, we will collect some of these innovations and modify the airplane's design all at once.

When you have aircraft that last for 30 years as they do today, introducing new technology becomes quite problematic. This is because of the retrofit issue. That's why we divide our explorations into two domains: new technologies that we continue to look at and try to phase in when they're practical, and existing technologies that we continue to examine in new and different ways.

If we introduce something into production, we must consider what we're going to do with the airplanes in the field. Is it a retrofittable solution? If it isn't, then the airlines wind up with split fleets. This means that the new airplane they received last month differs from the one arriving this month. That causes them pain.

Many things that we are investigating are not necessarily new technologies. Instead, we're putting existing technologies to use in a different way. For instance, using satellites to broadcast data is nothing new, but we're continuing to look for new possible applications.

We employ the generic term "datalink" to identify communications between air-traffic control and the airplane. Today, there's a lot of information being exchanged between the ground and the airplane. Furthermore, in our newer models, we datalink diagnostic information.

Take a look at the way we handle maintenance information, for example. In our newest planes, we have what we call our central maintenance system. This collects all of the faults on an airplane. Therefore, if a box fails, it declares itself as failed. The system receives this information, attempts to separate cause from effect, and reaches a conclusion as to exactly what has failed. The system then consolidates this information into a single report.

The method implemented by a lot of airlines is to transmit the fault information to the ground within a half-hour or an hour before a plane's arrival at its next destination. This way, mechanics can get ready to proceed with the repairs precisely when the plane arrives at the gate. This is far more efficient than waiting until the airplane lands and mechanics enter the cockpit to read the pilot's log and find out what the pilot complained about while in flight. Both the 777 and 747-400 airplanes have this centralized maintenance system in place.

Beyond existing technologies, improvements in fiber optics, MEMS, and wireless communications will definitely play a crucial role in the airplanes of the future.

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