Computer software is increasingly flying, designing and building aeroplanes.The divide between aeronautics and ICT is blurring, industry players say.
“Flying a modern aeroplane is one of the most challenging and exciting activities in the world,” says European Aeronautics, Defence and Space (EADS) company SA head Hans Lükin. “But it is not one job. It takes many people doing many skilled jobs to get an Airbus that weighs over 500 tons off the ground and to keep it up.”
Aerosud Aviation programme director Rob Jonkers adds that nearly all these jobs routinely use information or communications technology in one way or another. Both were speaking in Newtown, Johannesburg, on the sidelines of the launch of Aeronautics and Aviation Week, at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre.
“These days, you can hardly fly an aircraft without some sort of electronic control being put into it. It is about getting the best efficiency out of an aircraft,” says Jonkers. “If you think of a pilot who is controlling an aeroplane in a traditional way, he`s got to, in terms of the piloting loop, see what`s going on, feel what`s going on and then he has to provide a control input that is going to direct the aircraft in a certain direction.
“All of that takes place in a second or less. So often you get over-control. If you think of computers in terms of speed of calculation, you can imagine the possibilities in assisting the pilot in better regulating his control inputs,” Jonkers adds.
“Then you can start building aeroplanes with built-in safety margins for pilots, because while the pilot is too slow to react to certain situations, the computer is not. You can also then relax stability margins to the extent that you can build aircraft that is almost unstable and rely on the computer to fly it. This is called fly-by-wire,” he explains. “It is about how to control information and regulate control inputs. This gives one efficiencies such as smaller tails that generate less drag, which reduces fuel consumption.”
The same applies on the ground, says Jonkers. “Design is our forte. What we are looking at is the integration of design. Even recently, computer aided design (CAD) was standalone. You would draw a part, or a few parts, but that is where it stopped. You still had to build mock-ups in wood or in metal in order to understand how the aeroplane fitted together.
“Mock-ups are extremely expensive in material, tools and people. It is almost like building a real aeroplane, except you don`t need the extreme tolerances. You still have to make everything fit and work. Nowadays with modern CAD programmes you can create digital mock-ups.
“So now you are drawing a part in three dimensions and there are other teams drawing other parts in three dimensions.
“And then you can integrate these using software, which can see where the interference is and whether parts are too close or too far from bulkheads. That is a big benefit. You can also go straight from digital design to digital manufacturing.”
There is also a downside to ICT in aviation, says Jonkers. “In the 1950s and 1960s you could design and build aircraft in as little as six to 12 months, using an army of people. Computers have now replaced most of these people and in theory one should still be able to design and build in that timeframe. But in practice it now takes longer.”
He says the reason for this is that “bureaucrats and autocrats” regularly over-specify requirements and demand the inclusion of complicated technology merely because it exists, not because it adds value to the end result.
“It has become a millstone around the neck,” he says. “Because it is there they demand the most complex technology or integration techniques. That is a concern I have about IT in a complex environment, especially aviation.”