Boeing’s latest 777F ecoDemonstrator flight programme tests 100% biofuel use and turbulence detection
FedEx 777F ecoDemonstrator in flight testing (photo: Boeing)
Wed 21 Mar 2018 – Boeing is midway through its latest ecoDemonstrator flight programme that is testing more than 30 technologies aboard a FedEx-owned 777 freighter. Since 2012, the programme has tested more than 55 technologies using four commercial aircraft as flying test beds, with the aim of accelerating new technologies and processes that can reduce emissions and noise, improve airlines’ gate-to-gate efficiency and help meet other environmental goals. The 2018 programme is testing flight deck innovations, propulsion advancements, advanced materials, more efficient flight operations and clear-air turbulence detection. Most test flights are also being powered with 100% paraffinic biofuel, the first time this has taken place using a commercial airliner. Boeing says the testing is to gather performance data and demonstrate drop-in fuel properties.
Through the data gathering and operational experience of using unblended biofuel in flight, Boeing says it will be able to evaluate the fuel system, engine and aircraft performance compared to traditional fossil jet fuel. Additionally, it expects to identify potential opportunities for improved or alternate material components and to support industry approval. Under current rules, 50% is the maximum amount of biofuel that can be blended with fossil jet fuel for commercial flight operations.
The programme, which is expected to finish the flight testing phase by the end of April, also includes installing a compact thrust reverser developed by Boeing to save fuel, flight deck improvements that can improve efficient operations in and out of busy airports, and flying prototype airplane parts using cutting-edge manufacturing techniques that reduce material waste.
French aerospace company Safran Electrical & Power is equipping the 777F with a comprehensive electrical channel, encompassing electric power generation and distribution systems, engine and aircraft wiring, and specific electrical loads. It says the flight testing will demonstrate a number of potential benefits such as electrical system efficiency, reduction of energy losses, and weight and operating savings.
In efforts to reduce manufacturing waste or use recycled material in its aircraft, Boeing is testing methods for re-using manufacturing by-products and bringing the material back as high-value materials for new aircraft. For the ecoDemonstrator programme, testing is being carried out on an additive manufactured tail-fin cap with NASA integrated components and a titanium part made with mostly recycled content.
Boeing is also testing a new technology, Synthetic Instrument Landing System, which instead of using the traditional radio beam so that pilots stay centred on approach to the runway, uses satellite information in the form of GPS signals to create the approach line. Satellite information is more accurate and is not affected by weather conditions, says Boeing, allowing aircraft to land in all kinds of weather and could also enable tighter spacing between aircraft on approach.
Another important element of the 2018 programme is the testing of an onboard clear-air turbulence (CAT) detection system developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). The LIDAR system can detect CAT that conventional weather radars fail to identify. Although similar technologies have been developed in the past, they have been considered impractical and too heavy for use onboard a commercial aircraft. The JAXA prototype, however, weighs only 83.7kg, equivalent to one passenger with one baggage, and boosts the range of CAT detection to 17.5km. For a cruising aircraft, this allows around 70 seconds for a pilot to turn on the seatbelt sign and warn passengers and crew to prepare for hazardous shaking. JAXA believes the system could potentially reduce turbulence-caused injuries by 60%. Research has shown incidences of CAT will increase with climate change (see article).