A new generation of more efficient aircraft will take to the skies in the near future carrying General Electric-built systems that do not burn gas. Though not as headline grabbing as the company's next generation GE9X, GEnx or Leap engines, the slate of new technologies offered by GE Aviation Systems, headed by Lorraine Bolsinger, will set the standard for efficiency in relation to vehicle electrical distribution, vehicle health management, integrated propulsion systems and performance-based navigation.
"Last year was a year of execution," says Bolsinger, chief executive of GE Aviation Systems. "We had some very big plans, big growth plays we launched in 2010, and 2011 was about making those happen."
Included in those plans and executions was delivering the Boeing 787 "common core" computing systems and landing gear actuation, indication and nose wheel steering systems. "[The 787] has taken a lot of our time and attention," says Bolsinger, noting that the "early introduction to service has been very good".
The company is working with Gulfstream Aerospace on an integrated vehicle health management (IVHM) system for the new G650 large-cabin, ultra long-range business jet, set for certification later this year. Announced in October 2011, the two contracts include installing the system, branded by Gulfstream as PlaneConnect, on the aircraft and to operate the service. In addition to the components on the aircraft, the IVHM must also tie in to the operator's enterprise systems, for instance, for maintenance scheduling and parts planning.
Bolsinger says an announcement for IVHM on a second business jet platform is "close", and perhaps the first airline customer could be announced by the end of the year. "We're talking to customers about the benefit they might see having IVHM on their aircraft," says Bolsinger. "Airline customers don't want more data; they want decisions and they want solutions; they want to turn unscheduled events into scheduled events."
She says the industry loses $8 billion in revenue per year to mechanical delays. "If we could put a dent in that number with prognostics that can predict well in advance of a failure, it gives airlines a chance to turn that unscheduled event into a scheduled event."
While IVHM can be retrofitted to the aircraft, "the bigger piece is working with airline on enterprise integration," says Bolsinger. "The hardware and algorithms are done."
GE is working several "proof of concept" demonstrations with major airlines that are set to conclude soon, says Bolsinger. "Certainly by the end of the year we would like to have a launch customer," she says.
The development of GE Systems' integrated propulsion system (IPS) technology, selected for the Comac C919 narrowbody airliner and the Bombardier Global 7000 and Global 8000 business jets, is underway and additional platforms could be added. An IPS boosts the efficiency of the engine/nacelle/pylon pairing for a specific aircraft.
"We're very encouraged on IPS for jets," says Bolsinger. "But we also have propeller business at GE Aviation Dowty. We're looking at whether you could have similar results in IPS on turboprops."
Bolsinger says there's likely to be a resurgence of turboprops as a result of volatile fuel prices and shorter markets with smaller runways. "We think there's an opportunity for turboprops we haven't seen before," she says. "If you look at the fundamental economics of turboprops versus regional jets, turboprops are inherently more efficient for certain routes. Those routes have a growth trajectory now. We've been talking with a couple of airframers looking at potential new turboprop studies."
She says current studies of IPS considering the aircraft's wing and propeller show the potential of a 4-5% efficiency gain. "We're bullish on 2%," she says.
On the avionics front, the company continues to develop the integrated modular avionics for the C919, as well as the flight management system (FMS), displays and onboard maintenance systems, work that GE is doing as part of an avionics joint venture with Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the C919 builder.
"We completed our avionics joint venture with AVIC in the end of March," says Bolsinger. "It's probably the hardest thing in the world to do - taking part in the [Comac] C919 programme as we are standing up the joint venture. Our first priority is staying on schedule for first flight. Secondly, we're building the capability for long term."
Tightly connected with avionics systems is the company's performance-based navigation services arm, which recently won a contract with the US Federal Aviation Administration to develop required navigation performance procedures at five US airports. "We think it is a watershed activity and pivot point for NextGen taking off," says Bolsinger. "We're working around the world, proving you can save fuel and time, emissions and shorten overall distance of flight."
Another capability aimed at the longer term is more efficient primary and secondary power distribution systems. The company began setting up two integration laboratories over the past year, one in Cheltenham, UK, and one in Dayton, Ohio, where end-to-end power systems can be simulated for military and commercial aircraft.
"The beauty of both of these is that they have large generator drive train capabilities - 3MW in Dayton and 6MW in the UK," says Bolsinger. "It's a playground for electrical engineers."
The facilities will study primary and secondary electrical load management as well as loading and shedding schemes. The first fully integrated load management system will be for a business jet application, says Bolsinger. She says the project will be for a new aircraft, but would not provide additional details.
Along with load management, GE is working to make electric power devices more efficient. "Electric power has already quadrupled in the last five years on commercial aircraft," says Bolsinger, adding that the need for electric power is probably going to double again in the next four of five years.
A by-product of "more electric" is more heat that is generated and must be accommodated; an issue GE is addressing with the silicon carbide technologies. "We've made some incredible breakthroughs," says Bolsinger. "We're looking at silicon carbide taking out maybe 400lb [181kg] on a commercial aircraft. For combat aircraft and unmanned aircraft, where power density is critical, the technologies will allow for missions to be completed that wouldn't otherwise be completed."