Stripping the wires

A spaghetti junction of wires and connections will vanish from Boeing’s next generation of passenger airliners thanks to technology developed by UK engineer Smiths Group.

A spaghetti junction of wires and connections will vanish from Boeing’s next generation of passenger airliners thanks to technology developed by UK engineer Smiths Group.

The company’s Smiths Aerospace division will supply the common core system (CCS) for the Boeing 7E7 Dreamliner, due to enter service from 2008.

The 7E7’s CCS, described as the plane’s ‘central nervous system’, will consolidate into two cabinets the dozens of stand-alone computers traditionally scattered around an aircraft. These host the software applications that control most of the aircraft’s avionics and other utilities.

Mike Grady, Smiths’ vice-president of civil and military air transport, said the deal was a major endorsement by Boeing of technology pioneered on its own KC-767 Tanker aircraft and the Lockheed Martin C-130M.

Grady said the dramatic reduction in hardware would bring savings in money, weight and maintenance. ‘When you buy 20 computers you are also buying 20 power supplies,’ said Grady. ‘Then you need a lot of wiring, which is expensive and creates reliability issues of its own.’

Instead of conventional signal wiring, the 7E7’s CCS will use an advanced communications system called a ‘deterministic ethernet’ to link the various on-board systems to the core.

Upgrading and maintaining the system would be easier and cheaper, said Grady, with as little as a simple software upgrade required to introduce new functions to the aircraft.

Arguably the biggest benefit of the CCS is the ‘thousands of pounds’ Boeing said it would cut from the aircraft’s weight, helping to achieve the 7E7’s 20 per cent reduction in fuel consumption compared to comparable existing aircraft.

Grady said the project was in tune with the relentless efforts of the world’s major airlines to extract every last drop of value from their aircraft. ‘There is a huge awareness of the costs of operating an airplane,’ said Grady. ‘Manufacturers have to achieve new cost performance levels to remain effective in the market.’

One area not open to compromise, however, is safety. Grady said Smiths and Boeing were ready for ‘close examination’ of the CCS by regulators such as the US Federal Aviation Authority.

The two cabinets offered ‘dual redundancy’, meaning one can support the other in the event of problems, he added.

The 7E7 contract is a coup for Smiths, and the company said it could be worth up to $1bn over the long-term. It also gives the UK group a boost after a similar deal to supply systems for the Airbus A380 was awarded to Thales.