The Future of GPS?

In January a software upgrade designed to support a new generation of GPS satellites called Block IIF was installed resulting in the failure of over 10,000 US military GPS recievers.  While civilian receivers were not affected in January, the next steps in this process may have profound implications for civilian GPS users including pilots who increasingly rely on GPS for navigation.Launching the New GPS Satellite

Late last week the US Air Force launched the first of 12 new satellites designed to provide ultra-precise navigation and timing services.  These satellites will be used by both military and civilian receivers and are intended to be less vulnerable to jamming as well as longer lived.  They will use advanced atomic clocks for improved accuracy and will benefit aviation safety and search and rescue efforts.  This new system built by Boeing, has been dubbed GPS 2F-1 and is expected to last 12 years under solar power.  It is said to be twice as accurate as the current system.

Currently nearly a billion people worldwide use GPS for everything from recreation and farming to aviation, banking and disaster relief, in addition to it’s military uses.  Many are asking what the effect will be for the everyday user of GPS.  Will the new satellites be compatible with existing civilian receivers, or will we all have to purchase new ones?  Will the old system be phased out and what is the expected date when all 12 new satellites will be in operation?  Will my little handheld TomTom stop insisting that I turn right in 300 feet, even though that would put me over the side of a cliff?  We can only wait and hope.

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The Greening of Aviation?

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Was it only last fall that people were chanting “drill, baby, drill!”, and declaring everyone from the government to your grandmother must “go green!”?  Remember $8.00 a gallon 100LL and paying for pillows and blankets on US commercial flights? 

Given the furor over global warming and energy prices, how is it possible that an aviation bio-fuel revolution is quietly proceeding with so little fuss and fanfare?

Here’s a taste of what has been going on, pretty much under the radar of mainstream media in the aviation bio-fuel revolution.  January, 2009 a Japan Airlines (JAL) airliner completed a 1.5 hour demo flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport powered by a combination of camelina, jatrophe and algae.

In December, 2008 Air New Zealand flew two hours on a 50/50 mix of jatropha biodiesel and standard A1 jet fuel.

In November, 2008 a plane flew from Reno, Nevada to Leesburg Florida, flying the first 1776 miles on 100% bio-diesel and the remaining 710 miles on a 50/50 mix of bio-diesel and standard jet fuel.

In October, 2008 Aviation Magazine published a story on the Department of Defense and the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) claims of a 100% renewable jet fuel capable of replacing JP-8.

In August, 2008 an F-15 Strike Eagle flew out of Robins Air Force Base in Georgia on a 50/50 mixture of JP-8 and a natural gas based synthetic fuel.

Why the apparent disinterest by the media on this tangible progress toward effective bio-fuel for aviation? 

Some say the amount of land set aside for growing bio-fuel crops may be contributing to a world wide food shortage.  Others are concerned that bio-fuel production may actually increase global warming.  It could be as simple as short term memory loss. Finding alternative fuel sources which seemed critically important with gas at the pump at $4.00 a gallon, is all but forgotten now that prices have come down.

This crisis will pass, and fuel prices will go back up.  So those of us with a stake in the future of aviation need to pay attention and press forward.  Will bio-fuel be the ultimate answer?   No one really knows yet, but many are touting camelina,  jatropha, algae and celulosic ethanol.

Camelina, for instance, may combat rising emissions while adding to food production and crop yields.  It has actually been shown to be an excellent rotational crop, boosting the yield of subsequent crops such as wheat by up to 15%.  It can be grown on marginal land, needs very little water and is viable in cold regions such as Montana and Canada and Europe.  It is estimated bio-diesel made from camelina could be sold for around $2.00 per gallon, compared to $3.00 per gallon for soy or corn based ethanol.

According to a spokesman for JAL, who used a mixture of bio-fuel and jet fuel for their groundbreaking demonstration flight in January, “the bio-fuel was a combination of three second-generation bio-fuel feedstocks which do not compete with natural food or water sources and do not contribute to deforestation practices.”

Turning to personal craft, Pipistrel, a Slovenian aircraft company, is working on a two-passenger electric aircraft.  The Taurus Electro is said to be capable of climbing to 6,000 feet, traveling 1,000 miles in a day with a lithium-polymer battery which takes about as long to recharge as a cell phone.

With graduations of aerospace engineers down 57% in the US since 1990 the US may be taking a back seat to Europe and Asia in making air travel more sustainable in the coming years.  Never the less, the future of innovation in aviation is going strong and it’s looking pretty green from here.

Airplanes that can repair themselves?

A recent article in the Science Daily details a 3-year research project ‘Bleeding Composites; Damage Detection and Repair Using a Biomimetic Approach’.  Incredibly, within 5 years aircraft may be able to mend themselves, even in flight.

It works something like this.  If a tiny hole or crack appears in the airplane (maybe due to wear or fatigue), epoxy resin would ‘bleed’  from embedded vessels near the damage and seal it up, sort of like a scab.  Dye added to the resin would mark the ‘self repairs’ for future ground inspections so more permanent repairs could be made. 

Hollow glass fibres contained in the FRP composite material would be filled with resin and hardener.  When the fibres break, the resin and hardener would ooze out creating the “scab”.  The repairs are expected to result in  recovery of 80%-90% of the original strength of the material and would occur automatically as the damage ocurred, even in flight.

According to Dr. Ian Bond, who has led the project, “this approach can deal with small scale damage that’s not obvious to the naked eye but which might lead to serious failures in structural integrity if it escapes attention.  It’s intended to complement rather than replace conventional inspection and maintenance routines, which can readily pick up larger scale damage, caused by a bird strike, for example.”

This technique which mimics the natural bruising/bleeding/healing processes of our own bodies has been developed by aerospace engineers at Bristol University.  This new technique can be used  wherever fibre-reinforced polymer (FRP) composites are used.  These materials are increasingly popular for use in aircraft, automobiles and even spacecraft.

One important benefit may be aircraft designs using more composite materials in place of aluminum.  The resulting reduction in weight could lead to substantial fuel savings over the coarse of an airplanes lifetime.  In aircraft FRP composites can be used in any part of the fuselage, nose, wings, and tailfins.

This new self-repair technique may be availble for commercial use within 4-5 years.