Dreamliner raises test, political issues

The problems surrounding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are raising technical as well as political issues. Technical issues involve lithium-ion batteries, leaking fuel and oil, and cracked windshields, which are being addressed by engineers. The company has an additional card to play as the issues get sorted out.

According to Politico, “Boeing suffered a blow to its multibillion-dollar aircraft program and corporate reputation in recent days, but it has one big advantage: Friends in high places, and an army of lobbyists assuring regulators and lawmakers that the aerospace company is doing all it can to address the safety problems with its 787 Dreamliner.”

Guy Norris at Aviation Week & Space Technology summed up the technical issues: “If the January 7 fire on a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston's Logan International Airport proved anything to Boeing, it was that no amount of exhaustive pre-service testing can guard against the unexpected.”

Norris went on to write, “The question now facing Boeing and the regulators is whether the latest incident, which was centered on a lithium-ion battery unit, is more serious than a sneeze and could be the possible trigger for a system modification or redesign.” And John Hockenberry on The Takeaway radio program questioned whether the 787 would become Boeing's de Havilland DH 106 Comet. The broadcast journalist Miles O’Brien, who focuses on science, technology, and aerospace, said concerns about fuel leaks and cracked windshields amount to nitpicking, but the battery issues are more significant. He added that any problems with the 787's carbon-fiber construction would be unlikely to appear quickly.

Patrick Smith, who writes the Ask the Pilot blog, noted that although 787 issues are trending in a bad direction, the 787 has “…not yet joined the likes of the Comet or the DC-10….” He added, “The good [news] is that the grounding came preemptively, before anybody was seriously hurt or killed. It’s also helpful that the problem, as we understand it thus far, is eminently fixable. Burning batteries are serious, but this isn’t a structural defect that’ll wind up costing billions.”

According to Norris at Aviation Week, Boeing contends that the electrical problems on the 787 seem disproportionate because craft has more electric functions than other models. However, a statement appearing on Boeing's site reads, “All modern jetliners have batteries. The 787's more-electric architecture has very little to do with batteries. The key innovation that enables the improved efficiency is the generation of more electrical power and the elimination of the high-pressure bleed air (pneumatic) system. The functions that were formerly powered pneumatically are now powered electrically.”

In any case, Norris quoted Mike Sinnett, Boeing 787 vice president and chief project engineer, as saying lithium-ion technology “was the right choice for us at the time. Knowing what I know now, it would be the same choice.”

As for potential causes of the battery failure, Japan Today reported Saturday on an All Nippon Airways 787 that made an emergency landing Wednesday in western Japan, quoting Japan transport ministry investigator Hideyo Kosugi as saying the state of the battery indicated that “voltage exceeding the design limit was applied” to it.

If there's good news, the investigator said that the battery damage on the Wednesday ANA flight was similar to the damage to a battery in a Japan Airlines 787 that caught fire January 7 while parked at Boston’s Logan International Airport; therefore engineers may only need to find a single root cause. Unfortuantely, the Chicago Tribune reported today that according to the NTSB, “Examination of the flight recorder data from the JAL B-787 airplane [whose battery caught fire in Boston] indicates that the APU (auxiliary power unit) battery did not exceed its designed voltage of 32 V.”

Some have suggested that NiCd would have been the better technology choice, but of course saving weight is the whole point of Dreamliner design decisions. And if the cause of the problem is indeed an excessive charging voltage being applied, any battery technology would experience problems.

While engineers sort out the technical issues, Politico reported that the company is relying on friends in high places to assure regulators and lawmakers that it is addressing the problems. “Boeing has powerful allies in the Obama administration and on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill, sending millions of dollars each year to lawmakers’ campaign coffers and employing thousands of people at plants in Washington state and South Carolina,” Politico reporter Scott Wong wrote. He also noted that Boeing has paid lobbying firms $75 million over the past five years.

Wong reported that Washington Senator Patty Murray may be Boeing's highest profile champion (even though the company headquarters decamped from Seattle for Chicago) and is likely working to ensure a smooth flow of information between Boeing and regulators.

Wong quoted Kenneth Quinn, a former FAA chief counsel current head of the aviation practice for law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman (which doesn't represent Boeing), as saying, “The primary focus of Boeing or any other company in a crisis of confidence like this is to address the underlying engineering and air worthiness issues to regain the confidence of your regulators.”

Sponsored Recommendations

What are the Important Considerations when Assessing Cobot Safety?

April 16, 2024
A review of the requirements of ISO/TS 15066 and how they fit in with ISO 10218-1 and 10218-2 a consideration the complexities of collaboration.

Wire & Cable Cutting Digi-Spool® Service

April 16, 2024
Explore DigiKey’s Digi-Spool® professional cutting service for efficient and precise wire and cable management. Custom-cut to your exact specifications for a variety of cable ...

DigiKey Factory Tomorrow Season 3: Sustainable Manufacturing

April 16, 2024
Industry 4.0 is helping manufacturers develop and integrate technologies such as AI, edge computing and connectivity for the factories of tomorrow. Learn more at DigiKey today...

Connectivity – The Backbone of Sustainable Automation

April 16, 2024
Advanced interfaces for signals, data, and electrical power are essential. They help save resources and costs when networking production equipment.


To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Electronic Design, create an account today!