Boeing, AA, FAA Collaborate on Environmental Technologies

Boeing, American Airlines, FAA collaborate on 737-800 ecoDemonstrator Airplane to accelerate environmental technology. Photograph used with permission.

Boeing, American Airlines and the FAA are currently working together to test a number of environmentally progressive technologies with their joint “ecoDemonstrator” program. This entails the use of a pre-delivery test-bed 737-800 aircraft, loaned by American, that will ultimately be returned to standard specifications and delivered to the airline later this year.

In order to understand how this program fits into – or augments – typical research and development undertaken by Boeing, I spoke with Jeanne Yu, Director, Environmental Performance at Boeing Commercial Airplanes to learn more about the program.

In particular, I was interested in how American Airlines and Boeing came together to cooperate on such a program, and I wanted to understand what value is added by partnering with a customer such as American.

Boeing has engaged in various collaborations before – for example, with engine manufacturers such as Rolls Royce and GE, and on customer partnerships, notably with Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA). Such collaborations have focused on things like noise reduction and biofuel testing in the past.

When I asked how these partnerships come about, Boeing’s Jeanne Yu explained, “We have found that demonstrations [in partnership with airlines] help us accelerate focus on our technology, and give us a sense of urgency. Working with airline partners who have a disciplined structure and schedule, helps us contain our tests within a certain time-frame.” In this instance, by way of conversations with various airlines, Boeing and American found a mutual alignment from an environmental strategy standpoint.

As well as providing focus, testing innovations on existing aircraft through the ecoDemonstartor program allows Boeing to take bigger chances than engineers are able to take on brand new aircraft design. Jeanne explains, “each year we take a cornerstone technology, which then helps select the right aircraft for the program.”

In this way Boeing learns new technologies by trial all the time, not just every ten years (or more) when a new model is designed on the drawing board. The lessons learned in the experimentation process also helps inform engineers how effective innovations can move from experimentation, to the successful manufacture of such systems into new planes.

The current ecoDemonstrator is testing six key technologies:
Adaptive wing trailing edges that can morph in order to accommodate a particular phase of flight (takeoff, climb, cruise and decent), allowing reduced fuel consumption and reduced noise

A variable area fan nozzle where the engine exhaust area can increase by up to ten percent to accommodate different phases of flight. Again, this reduces fuel consumption and noise

Active engine vibration control using actuators to cancel vibrations from the engine. This reduces noise, reduces maintenance costs and provides a quieter and more comfortable ride for passengers

Regenerative hydrogen fuel cell technology providing electricity for the airplane systems and energy storage for periods of low electrical demand. This reduces fuel consumption by taking some power generation duties away from the engines and enables alternative fuel use.

Flight trajectory optimization and information management allows, via the use of iPad-like devices, route optimization. It improves on existing systems as it allows earlier detection of things like storm fronts, since it can “see” farther ahead and operates in real-time.

The use of sustainable carpet tiles made from recycled materials that can be recycled at the end of their useful lift.

Some of these technologies may be retrofitted to existing aircraft in future, others will find their way into next-generation designs. The flight trajectory optimization may be incorporated into some aircrafts by the end of the year. Jeanne explained the Captain of the ecoDemonstrator was “really jazzed” by this tool and the potential it will provide airline pilots.

I asked how these technologies fit in with the overall effort Boeing has to enhance air travel sustainability. To this Jeanne replied, “We know that the world wants to fly – flying brings people together and keeping the world connected is really important to the world community.” That said, Jeanne goes on to say “while everyone wants to see a silver bullet, the truth of it is, as we try to reduce the environmental footprint, it is going to be a collection of progress in a number of areas – bio fuel, air-traffic management as well as the fuel efficiency of our aircraft.”

Undoubtedly air travel has an adverse environmental impact, but ongoing development of environmentally progressive technologies such as these will work towards achieving the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) goal of “stopping the growth of our emissions from 2020 and to halve emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.”

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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