PARIS – On Wednesday morning at the 52nd Paris Air Show, Boeing Commercial Airplanes VP Product Development, Mike Sinnett provided an update on the projects Boeing is currently putting attention toward, and what we may see in the future.
Autonomous Ground Taxi
Boeing is gearing up towards autonomous taxi operations in the Puget Sound area airports in the next year or two. Sinnett said the process of getting a plane to understand where it is, and what objects are around it is the most crucial step along with proving its safety and functionality for FAA certification.
The long-term goal of machine learning would be to allow the reduction in the number of flight crew. On a 16-hour flight, you can have five pilots working, but the ability to require only two or three could help alleviate pilot shortages.
For a machine to make decisions, you can’t have a case where the decision maker will always make the same decisions. Humans don’t operate that way. How do you work with regulators to certify such a thin? The FAA does qualify non-deterministic systems today, they’re called pilots. We have to be able to know that the decisions the plane would make are both bounded and acceptable. We’re working very specifically to understand where the pilot steps into a safety situation. Accidents almost always involve a chain of events where several disruptions to the normal flight occur without any intervention. We’re working to break the links of that chain.
The next EcoDemonstrator will be a 777, testing propulsion advancements, advanced materials, efficient flight operations, and lower fuel burn. We’ll see this plane begin flight testing in Spring, 2018. Following that, a 787 will be used in 2019, with interior features & capabilities “with an eye toward NMA”
This theoretical plane would be utilized as a regional jet. The design includes a truss-braced wing, allowing for a much longer and significantly more fuel-efficient wing.
Boeing’s first potential autonomous aircraft could be a small hybrid-electric freighter. “It’s an important step to help us flesh out that technology,” said Sinnett. The technology of autonomous flight is a bigger challenge than public acceptance. The public will be exposed to so many more autonomous products that they’ll even come to expect it.”
“We need to figure out what the possibilities are, and we need to do it in a responsible way,” he said. “When you think about the outcomes, one outcome may be that we can’t do it. Maybe zero pilot isn’t achievable, but one step may be to operate a long-haul flight with less pilots.”
Working on low boom technology, looking at where and when supersonic works in a commercial environment: “It will be a very difficult case to close, but very important to work on,” said Sinnett. Size-wise, Boeing sees anything from business jet to small passenger planes, seating under 70.
“You burn a lot of fuel to go fast. Through 787 we’ve shown that point to point is more efficient than hub to hub, then still having to get to your point. The tech isn’t there to allow us to close a business case.” Sinnett said he does expect a supersonic plane within 20 years, maybe not Boeing, but declined to address start-up Boom Aerospace.
The Blended-Wing Body
Boeing was moving forward on a blended-wing body (BWB) design in the past, but instead developed the 787 program. At the time, they shied away from the BWB because of the concern for airport infrastructure, and the gate width of the BWB design.
However, Sinnett said today, “If a high span is so much more fuel efficient, infrastructure will chance.” Perhaps a folding wing similar to the one being introduced on the 777X would be a good solution.
Sinnett said 300 seats will be the sweet spot for the technology we have available now on a BWB. The BWB is truly a lifting body, where the passengers sit in the wing box. Probably wouldn’t work for short range missions, where you don’t spend a lot of time in cruise. A BWB aircraft is a potential generation jump, following NMA.
Design Doesn’t Start With Drawings
Sinnett said the conversation about aircraft design has to start with the mission, then look at what capabilities can you bring to bear most safely and efficiently. “If I told you I’m in love with a configuration (tube and wing, or blended-wing body) I’d expect you to be skeptical of my ability to design an airplane.”
All images provided by Boeing, unless otherwise noted.