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Who's Ready for Hypersonic Airplanes?

Posted August 26, 2015 1:13 PM by HUSH

Ever since the jet engines of the Concorde were extinguished nearly 12 years ago, the world has awaited the next supersonic transport (SST). Amid rising fuel costs, diminished government discounts, a fatal crash, reduced air travel and a manufacturer that eliminated maintenance services, the Concorde was essentially forced into retirement.

This left a niche branch of air travel that remains unfulfilled. Whether it be for novelty or functionality, there remains a need for a new generation of SST. The technology is there, as it has been since 1963, but airplane OEMs and operators haven't felt compelled to rush a new supersonic plane into service. After all, a Boeing 747 can carry thrice the passengers while using the same amount of fuel.

There have been a few developments of note, however. Since last check-in, Supersonic Aerospace International has re-envisioned its Quiet SST concept as a 737-sized supersonic passenger transport. SAI believes it has eliminated sonic booms with a redesigned fuselage and by using extremely powerful electric turbofans for propulsion that receive power from a superconductive electrical storage system. SAI is expected to release feasibility studies in 2015, but for the second time in five years, it seems the SAI QSST is on hiatus.

This is just one of a number of SST concepts that have gone quiet recently. In late 2013 a Gulfstream executive said that there isn't a current viable market for its supersonic x-54A concept. The Tupolev Tu-444 has seemingly been cancelled. Other projects, like the Lockheed N+2 and HyperMach SonicStar, are promised to be available in the 2020s. Meanwhile Aerion Corporation has begun taking orders for its $120 million AS2 business-class supersonic jet, yet it won't be delivered until 2021, at earliest. The Spike S-512 seems poised to launch in 2018 or 2019. Right now it's a two-horse race for SSTs.

Despite the considerable development still ahead of all these planes, engineers are already envisioning the subsequent generation of aerospace travel: hypersonic transportation. Supersonic planes travel over Mach 1, but hypersonic planes will travel Mach 5 (3,800 mph). In July, the U.S. Air Force announced its intention to have a hypersonic aircraft ready by 2023, and a full weapons platform in its hands by 2040. Considering most supersonic passenger planes won't ready until after this deadline, it seems the military is rushing the maturity of this technology a bit.

Nonetheless, commercial hypersonic planes are on the horizon too. Airbus recently filed a patent on hypersonic plane technology. The concept aircraft would use regular jet engines to take-off before rocket boosters would send the plane on a steep ascent. Once above the atmosphere, ramjet engines would propel the plane to 3,400 mph. Of course, patents typically are intellectual property tactics and don't always represent realized technologies. But leading aerospace engineers believe the day will come when flying Tokyo to Paris takes just three hours.

Is it too early to innovate hypersonic technologies? Probably not. But a lot remains to be seen-especially financially-with the next era of supersonic travel.

8 comments; last comment on 08/28/2015
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Utilities Put Drones on Patrol

Posted August 25, 2015 12:00 AM by IHS Engineering360 eNewsletter

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly referred to as drones, are expanding the frontiers of utility operations. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that using drones improves safety by keeping workers farther from high voltage lines. And when human intervention is required, UAVs can help workers make the best decisions about how to proceed in a given situation. Drones are uniquely suited for flying close to equipment and using visible and thermal photography to inspect and monitor power distribution assets. The information can be viewed in real-time and/or recorded for future comparison and analysis.

Editor's Note: This news brief was brought to you by the Aerospace Technology eNewsletter. Subscribe today to have content like this delivered to your inbox

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Rise of the Drones

Posted August 02, 2015 12:00 AM by Texas Instruments

2015 is quickly becoming the year of drones. So what exactly is a drone? According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a drone is an unmanned aircraft system comprising the unmanned aircraft (the drone) and all of its associated support equipment: control station, data links, telemetry, navigation equipment, etc. To fly a hobbyist drone (weighing less than 55lbs), you don't need the FAA's approval, as long as you keep it within your line of sight and away from populated areas/full-scale aircrafts. Flying a drone for business purposes does require FAA approval.

According to CBInsights, as of May 31, drone startups have raised more funding in 2015 than the previous three years combined (Figure 1). While the defense industry has used drones for more than a decade, they are coming into their own in the commercial space.

Figure 1: Drone Investment activity reported by CBInsights

So what exactly is a drone? A drone is an unmanned aircraft. An unmanned aircraft system is the unmanned aircraft (drone) and all of the associated support equipment such as control station, data links, telemetry, navigation equipment, etc. To fly a hobbyist drone that weighs < 55lbs, you don't need FAA's approval as long as you keep it within your line of sight and away from populated areas/full scale aircrafts. But, to fly a drone for business purpose, you do need to obtain FAA's approval.

What makes drones so attractive for business purposes? They have certain unique abilities that are opening up new applications and markets every day. Drones can overcome terrain challenges and are deployable anywhere. They can also carry flexible payloads (the lighter the load the longer the flight time) and can measure and record everything in their path from an aerial perspective. The convergence of advanced smartphone software and processing capability; very high-resolution, lightweight video-capturing equipment; and advanced flight-control algorithms are unlocking new possibilities for drones.

Commercial applications include:

  • Camera drones - to capture extreme sport enthusiasts' adventures.
  • Agriculture - noted as having the highest potential commercially. Drones further the precision-agriculture movement by identifying and applying pesticides and fertilizers exactly where they are needed, which is better for the environment and the farmer's bottom line.
  • Search and rescue - thermal-imaging cameras can locate missing people when the general search area is known.
  • Surveying/geographic information systems (GIS) mapping.
  • Unmanned cargo delivery - delivering that last-minute anniversary gift or your favorite pizza.
  • Riot-control drones - loaded with pepper sprays or paintballs designed to disperse crowds. (This one makes me uneasy.)

One of the challenges with drones is the flight time. Could you imagine having to stop a search effort or your pizza not making it all the way to your house due to low battery? Limited flying time in every application scenario leads to a less desirable outcome. Although there are a few gas-powered drones, most are powered by lithium-ion (Li-ion) or lithium polymer (LiPo) rechargeable batteries. The many ways to extend flight time include making the payload as light as possible, flying in the right weather conditions, and choosing a higher capacity/higher-cell-count battery pack. Mainstream drone batteries have evolved from 3-4 cells in series to higher capacity greater than 5 cells in series. TI has a variety of battery chargers, gauges and protectors to cover the spectrum of drone application needs, including a device that can perform charging, gauging and protection all in one package - the bq40Z60.

That was a quick overview of drones, their applications and outlook. Even though every new generation of drone increases run time, you always want to remember to carry an extra battery pack or two so the fun can continue uninterrupted. Stay charged!

To learn more about TI's battery management portfolio, please visit

(Editor's Note: This is a sponsored post brought to you by Texas Instruments.)

8 comments; last comment on 08/09/2015
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Europe Moves to a Modern Air Traffic System

Posted July 29, 2015 11:49 AM by IHS Engineering360 eNewsletter

Deployment of the program known as "Single European Sky" has begun. Avionics Today reviews recent progress regarding operational improvements and technical enablers. The program's short term goals include traffic synchronization, airport integration and throughput, as well as 4D trajectory management. Implementation of System Wide Information Management (SWIM) - a set of IT principles to provide users with relevant and commonly understandable information - will also be critical. The report describes new mandates as well as R&D contributions from the commercial sector.

Editor's Note: This news brief was brought to you by the Aerospace Technology eNewsletter. Subscribe today to have content like this delivered to your inbox

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Growing Mass of Junk Imperils Astronauts and Satellites in Earth Orbit

Posted July 23, 2015 4:22 PM by Quasar
Pathfinder Tags: space debris

The three astronauts living at the International Space Station were forced to take shelter on July 16 as a piece of space debris threatened to collide with the station. The crew moved into the Soyuz capsule attached to the station to prepare for a quick escape should the collision have occurred. The debris was part of an old Russian weather satellite 'Meteor-2' launched in 1979. Luckily, an impact did not occur, and the debris passed by a mile and a half away from the station. This is only the fourth time in the station's 16 year history that ISS crew have had to take emergency shelter from debris. Ground control typically plans a station maneuver to avoid debris, but the warning this time came only 1½ hours ahead of the potential collision event.

The incident highlights the problem of space debris accumulating in Earth orbit, about which I recently wrote an article for Engineering360. Here's a preview:


In more than 50 years of space activity, more than 4,900 launches have carried around 6,600 satellites into space. About 3,600 of those satellites remain in space and around 1,000 remain operational today.

The result of all of this activity is an increasing mass of space debris orbiting Earth. These objects pose a growing threat to infrastructure like the International Space Station (ISS) as well as communication and defense satellites. Scientific models estimate that there are about 29,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm, 670,000 fragments larger than 1 cm, and of more than 170 million bits larger than 1 mm. Travelling at speeds up to 17,500 mph, even small pieces have the potential energy to damage satellites or spacecraft.

While debris shields can be effective against impacts with particles smaller than 1 centimeter, objects between 1 and 10 centimeters are usually too small to be tracked and too large to shield against. Even tiny specks of paint present a threat. Space shuttle windows on occasion were damaged by impacts with material that proved to be paint flecks.


For more details about the issue and how to confront it, check out the full article here.

11 comments; last comment on 08/12/2015
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Truth and Lies in SETI

Posted July 23, 2015 1:05 PM by HUSH

Let's get one thing straight, despite several well-publicized reports that the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, currently home to the European Space Agency's Philae lander, is home to an "abundance of alien microbial life:" humanity is not any closer to finding alien life. In fact, to say those claims are sensationalistic is an understatement.

The idea that 67P is home to alien life comes from astronomers Chandra Wickramasinghe, University of Buckingham, and Max Wallis, University of Cardiff. Wickramasinghe has been in the news before; he's most famous for the concept that the building blocks for life were deposited on Earth by comets with biological specimens.

He's used the notoriety to springboard other, less accepted ideas, such as the idea that the SARS virus and the airborne spores that caused rainfall in Kerala to turn a reddish hue both had extraterrestrial origins. He cites a layer of black organic crust found by Philae as evidence that life teems under the comet's icy surface. Such microbial organisms could have salts that prevent them from freezing even at temperatures of -40° C, and are responsible for the regeneration of the hydrocarbon crust, which is depleted as it speeds through space.

This created a flurry of interest in the comet and the Rosetta mission, but it was ultimately misleading. The presence of black hydrocarbons was an expected feature, predicted in 1986, naturally created by organic molecules exposed to cosmic rays and light. Wickramasinghe also said that Philae is unable to detect life, which is also not true. Philae would be able to measure quantities of organic chemicals that might indicate active biology-there are currently no measurements to support claims of life. Try as Wickramasinghe might, finding life on a comet is going to be a needle in a haystack.

Finding two needles in a haystack is twice as likely, but seemingly as improbable: that about explains the odds of the new $100 million Breakthrough Listen radio telescope campaign of finding alien life. The venture is funded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who feels the time is right to launch a massive renewed search for extraterrestrial radio signals in the "quiet zone," a spectrum between 1 and 10 gHz that is unaffected by cosmic sources or Earth's atmosphere.

The search will cover ten times more listening area than any search before. The $100 million will pay for thousands of hours of radio telescope time at the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the Parkes Telescope in Australia, as well as office and workshop space at the University of California. This immense project has attracted the likes of famous astronomers Frank Drake, Geoff Marcy and Stephen Hawking. Breakthrough Listen will also implement SETI@home, which allows amateurs to use their personal computers in the search.

Milner has accepted that Breakthrough Listen likely won't find anything interesting, as has said that he'd consider funding it for more than the current cycle. Marcy himself said it's possible that they're not even looking for the right evidence. However SETI funding has been in such a steep decline, that sometimes things like exaggerating what's been found on a comet might be necessary to pique interest. It does more harm than good to the cause in the end, but some publicity is better than no publicity.

5 comments; last comment on 07/24/2015
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