Like any other motor vehicle, aircraft need batteries that provide electricity. Over the years some systems have gradually become electrical. Flight control manuals have been replaced by electronic interfaces or had new computerised navigational assistance added. This process is called “Fly-by-Wire” which could be translated as “fly by electrical means”.
Engineers have found that batteries are an element with potential for development and improvement. This would allow the growing electricity demand to be met and make them more efficient, lightweight and compact. Unfortunately however, the desired result is not always achieved immediately. The attempts at improvement have had a noticeable impact on two of the most famous recently created aircraft, both with very similar operational characteristics.
Aircraft manufacturers are demanding improvements in batteries.
Problems with lithium-ion
The first to suffer problems was the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner”, which began operations in late 2011. On January 7th, 2013 the battery of an aircraft operated by Japan Airlines (JAL) overheated and caught fire, requiring the plane to make an emergency landing. On January 9th, United Airlines reported a problem with wiring in the same area. On January 16th an All Nippon Airways 787-8 also had to make an emergency landing after receiving an error message in the cockpit due to a malfunctioning battery.
Following this series of incidents, both Asian companies decided to ground all 787 models. The Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA), Boeing’s country of origin, ordered the grounding of its carriers. Subsequently the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), India, Qatar and finally LAN in Latin America, the only company with one of these aircrafts in the region, all followed suit. The Dreamliner ceased to operate one year after commercial release until the problem was fixed.
Why did the batteries fail? The peculiarity here was that this was the first time lithium-ion technology had been used. These batteries have the advantage of faster charging, less weight and being more compact. It is a widespread and tested technology in other fields such as electric cars and consumer electronics but had not, however, been free of incidents. There have been known cases of mobile phones and laptops overheating and causing injury. Once a battery of this type is exposed to a certain temperature it can overheat. They are also vulnerable to problems with fluid spills whereby when turned on they can actually catch on fire.
A return to nickel cadmium
The other plane involved was the Airbus A350, also designed to use lithium-ion. As its first flight was scheduled later, in mid-2013, the knowledge of what happened with the Dreamliner was used to change the design at the last minute and return to the previous nickel cadmium technology.
Aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus don’t design all the different elements of their models. Everyday items such as taps, stalls and entertainment equipment etc are purchased (although first they need an airworthiness certificate). For other items such as motors or batteries they establish the specific requirements themselves, but outsource the design to specialist companies. Based on the faults that have come to light, it is clear that the lithium-ion batteries designed up until now have not met customer requirements.
It is clear that aircraft manufacturers are demanding improvements in batteries. Therefore specialist companies should continue to investigate in providing solutions that, once their performance and utility can be demonstrated, would undoubtedly be widely used.