12:07 PM

But Can They Fix
a Crappy Landing?

AOPA's ePublishing staff is running an interesting article right now on aopa.org that casts a tiny bit of light on what kind of flying machines our grandchildren might be flying when they are old enough to solo:

Scientists have developed technology where airplanes can heal their own skins and engine parts can protect themselves from hazardous materials. Enter the low-maintenance airplane. University of Illinois researchers are working on a process where the damage itself triggers the repair mechanism in epoxy-based materials. Imagine a composite fuselage that always looks pristine. When a crack forms in the epoxy material using this approach, microcapsules containing chlorobenzene shear. The solvent disperses into the matrix, where it finds pockets of unreacted epoxy monomers. The solvent then carries the latent epoxy monomers into the crack, where polymerization takes place. This restores structural integrity.
Very interesting indeed. Since I believe one day all new GA planes will be composites, this emerging technology may be worth its weight in gold. Even if you think it's all hocus-pocus, you can't argue with this:
In fracture tests, self-healing composites recovered their original strength by 82 percent. The researches had experimented with a previous process that utilized a catalyst embedded in the epoxy matrix, but it proved too expensive for commercial applications. "Our new self-healing system is simple, very economical, and potentially robust," said professor Jeffrey Moore. "From an economics and simplicity standpoint, self-healing materials could become part of everyday life."
And deep inside your future Jet A-powered engine, there may be parts using another emerging technology being developed by the very same school that produced among many great things the people who are developing the Terrafugia Transition:
Engineers at MIT, meanwhile, have developed a simple process for manufacturing materials that strongly repel oils. This is important for protecting parts that get soaked in fuel such as rubber gaskets and O-rings. Oils and other hydrocarbons spread out over surfaces due to their low surface tension. Water, on the other hand, has high surface tension and forms droplets. Surface tension is a measure of the attraction between molecules of the same substance. The difference in surface tension explains why water rolls off a duck's feathers, but oil-coated feathers have to be washed in soap.
All right, this is all well and good. But in Dano's world, I believe a truly self-healing aircraft would also have this kind of functionality:
Self-filling gas tanks: For those far-too-frequent times when Bozo the Clown flies off in his twin without even giving one second of thought to the fuel quantities on board...this craft would refine fresh fuel from thin air and replenish the tanks en route.

Self-tuning radios: For those idiots who still refuse to make radio calls at uncontrolled fields, this future plane's NAV/COMMs would constantly search for airports and NAVAIDS closest to your programmed route of flight, and automatically tune to the appropriate frequency. Then, as some rude bastard attempts to enter the pattern at XYZ Airport without a call, his plane makes a digitized call for him, telling all other flyers to beat this clown silly the minute he shuts down.

Automatic Temperature Control: This ought to be a no brainer for planes, even today. If the car guys can build a HVAC system that is thermostat-controlled, why can't today's GA plane makers? Set it to 72 and forget it, letting the system choose from heating and A/C when needed.

Weight and Balance Issues: Tomorrow's airplane would have automatic seats that when filled would calculate the weight of each passenger as well as their luggage, determine the fuel on board, and then slides all seats fore or aft to re-center the CG.
You get the idea. There is quite a bit of room for improvement in the airplane of the future, as I truly believe there has never been a more exciting time to be an Aeronautical Engineer. As airline service continues to deteriorate over the years to come, we will see GA continue to appeal to more and more of the public, and if we can truly manufacture a "SmartPlane", more people will choose to buy one. The physics of flight will never change – pull the yoke back and the houses get smaller – but the passenger environment to achieve that flight can certainly change for the better...big time.

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