2007/07/11

The 787 - Beautiful! Revolutionary! Troubling?

Boeing rolled this baby out on Sunday 7/8/07, the company's first new jet in 12 years, and it now seems obvious why this plane has over 600 confirmed orders before it's even taken to the skies. It's gorgeous!


This my friends is 'the Airbus killer'. A plane that shows that Boeing understands the needs of their market far better than their European competitor. "Why?" you may ask. Well read on...

Beautiful! - This plane is like the cover of an old sci-fi periodical announcing "The Future!". The sloped nose; flush windows; wings swept up and back like a majestic bird. We haven't seen a airliner this magnificent since the de Havilland Comet. And unlike the 747 and A380--both of which make you wonder how they even get off the ground--the Dreamliner actually looks like it belongs in the air.

Revolutionary! - This is the jet that literally dozens of airlines have been waiting for--medium capacity but able to fly the world's longest air routes. Through the use of carbon composites in the fuselage, this jet will use 20% less fuel and has revolutionary new Rolls-Royce engines that are more efficient and quieter. But most importantly, this jet incorporates a revolutionary stabilization system that should significantly reduce the effects of turbulence...

Troubling? - ...and therein is the problem. Though you may not be aware of it, every Airbus jet since the A300 and Boeing's 777 and 787 are "fly-by-wire" aircraft. In other words there is no physical connection between the pilot and the control surfaces. Computers do the work of translating pilot inputs into things like pitch and yaw. Now this isn't really something to worry about. Fly-by-wire is well-understood and well-tested technology, but...add stabilization to that mix--almost certainly handled by different computer programs designed to sense changes in and compensate for wind-speed, air pressure, etc...--and it seems you're adding a complex set of variables to an already complex calculation. And, though I'm sure that Boeing's engineers have a really good idea of what they're doing, I'm also a software engineer who has a pretty good idea of how difficult such calculations are to perform, especially when the pilot input and the stabilization directives conflict.

Turbulence sucks, and the older I get the more nervous it makes me, but I think that in this instance I'd be willing to just deal with it. Especially when I'm flying in something as pretty as the Dreamliner.

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26 Comments:

Not good. Air travel is a disaster waiting to happen and this one pushes the limit.
No doubt anything could happen, but I'd definitely love to climb aboard if I could afford it.

Someday I hope to take one of this bird's descendants into orbit, and I'm kinda doubting that would work as precisely as needed the old way.

I'd been reading recently 'bout Airbus-v-Boeing, but yours is the first blog post I've seen. Very nicely done it is, too.
wow....that was so interesting...I know that the Dreamliner has been in the works for years- there are many in the NW that have waited for this plane....as orders fell for Boeing...but I think safety is getting shortchanged here and I don't think that is going to be such a good thing in the end....foresight is never valued enough....
I have several friends who work for Boeing, Seattle, and they were in the engineering/design of this new plane!

:)
I would imagine any modern digital flight control system would make the space shuttle (using early 1970's technology still) look like an abacus, with multiply redundant processors polling each other for consensus, probably at 100,000 or more times per second. Should a mistake be made, it would therefore be corrected only 10 microseconds later.

I think I can live with that.
Peacechick... I don't want to overstate the issue. SadButTrue makes a very valid point, that these types of systems use multiple computers and check and recheck each other's calculations thousands or hundreds of thousands of times per second.

So... probably nothing will ever happen as a result of these new flight control programs, but perhaps a more interesting exercise is to consider how such a system is tested considering it's the first-to-be-deployed stabilization system.
Michael... Thanks. I'm in love with this new plane, despite my reservations about it's software. Orbit though...you betcha! I'd like to be able to afford that as well.

Enigma... No doubt Boeing is doing oodles of testing. The issue really is not to test, but how to test.

Suzie-Q... That's very, very cool!
I have a phobia about flying, although I have flown a lot. But this plane does look nice. Of course, I would want to fly first class only, so I could pretend I'm not actually on a plane.
OMG, and we poor naive Aussies just spent a shit load preordering a big bunch of these plastic aeroplanes.
Bugger we can't even spell it so what are going to end up with?
Fortunately I've switched to the classic coaches maintained by Air New Zealand. Sure they rattle, but there is a certain substance to those old Rolls Royce V8 motors :)
Josie... Welcome to Blognonymous.

Have you seen the pictures of first class on this plane? It's pretty astounding. Of course, I'll probably be in cattle class somewhere down in the cargo hold. :-)

Cartledge... About the plastic. This is going cause a big problem for American Airlines I think, since they don't actually paint their fuselages. That funky brown isn't going to look so good as their new livery.
sup frog. doesn't a manual override kick into effect if isht goes down, where the computers are bypassed and all control is left to the pilots? God forbid any of us find ourselves in such a position, but if it does happen, what can you do but pray and die.
One of my sidelines involves arguing with Luddites about transportation automation, so let me add that what's been said at 7:19 and 7:41 about redundant systems checking up on each other is spot-on. Just because something is difficult doesn't mean it can't be done, carefully.

What I'm more concerned about with Dreamliner, as well as new military aircraft designs, is the composite material itself. A Boeing engineer I spoke with last year said that when a composite aircraft crashes, the composite will turn to dust and scatter into the atmosphere where everyone will be able to inhale it.
Wow I did not know there were people who argued with Luddites over transportation automation.

I just argue the usual: war, abortion, Is Al Gore a hypocrite, and Is Obama Ready?

Not all at once though. Unless I am feeling saucy.

Anyway, I say we give a few to China. :0
RAFFI... Not sure what would constitute 'manual override'. Since there is no physical connection between the pilot and the flight surfaces, something has to do the control translation. I suppose that there are levels of computer control. For example the whole stabilization system could be switched off. Sort of the way with the older Airbuses the built-in safety limits could be overridden. (At least I heard that could be done with the A320s).

Mr_Blog... EEK, that sounds bad. Also the notion of a plane disintegrating doesn't bode too well for the passengers. Though in a serious crash you're done for anyway.
At first I was going to ask if maybe you and airplane would like to be left alone.... ;)
Maybe it will run on Windows Vista. That will be perfectly safe.
Lynn... All politics and nothing else, makes Kvatch a dull frog. ;-)

Nvisiblewmn... Despite my nervousness while flying, I still love planes and airports, but only in a proper, platonic...you know...Republican fashion. :-)

Scott... Well under the guise of only using well-tested technology, I'd have to say... Windows 3.1, maybe NT, but I think that would be pushing it.
Good article and a relief to me. The Airbus Monster scares the hell out of me and I will avoid it all cost. This plane has a safe and reassuring look about it.
Lynn: Wow I did not know there were people who argued with Luddites over transportation automation.

Yes, admittedly a small niche, but it's mine!
"but only in a proper, platonic...you know...Republican fashion. :-)"

Froggie Dear.... That is an oxymoron there. Hear the one about the Bob Allen, Florida State Congressperson who just so HAPPENS to be a bigwig in the McCain Campaign offering a BJ to a cop for $20?

*laughing*
Cool. I want to fly in one!
I'll wait about 10 years before I ever step foot on that death trap or an Air Bus or 777 or whatever the hell they call them.

Piece of plastic shit in a crash would like give no hope for survival and burn like crazy.

Let the UAE, Saudi Arabia, yemen, and Oman test them out for us first...
Ooh, it's pretty!
CultureGhost... You know the Airbus 380 looks ungainly, but when it comes to flying over large bodies of water...nothing makes me feel better than 4 engines!

Sewmouse... $20?! I always knew 'Thuglicans where cheap bastards.

UnconventionalC... Me too...just not over large bodies of water.
Polishifter... But what choice do you have, really? It's often hard to get info on the exact aircraft you'll be taking.

I remember when I first flew the 777, looked out the window at the engine, and thought, "Birds? Hell. That monster could swallow Dorothy's house."

Fashiongirl... I think so too.
Hi Kvatch

well, for one, I don't fly, not since 9/11 so in that sense I have a choice.

Fortunately I don't "have" to fly as many do.

Maybe in 10 years from now long past all the post 9/11 bullshit 'get rid of yer carryon water, shampoo, and toothpaste' and 'take off yer shoes' I'll consider flying and by then the 787 should be well tested.

Or hopefully by then we'll have transporters...Beam me up Scotty!

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