When Boeing’s brightly liveried, experimental-category 777-200 landed at Atlantic City International Airport in New Jersey during a recent demonstration tour, it wasn’t an ordinary flight. Not only did Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator fly in from Frankfurt, Germany, the first time an aircraft from the program had ever visited outside the U.S., but the approach to KACY itself was experimental. Flown using controller pilot datalink communications (CPDLC), it also included a steep 3.77-degree glideslope on the approach.
Along with government officials, industry representatives, business and community leaders, and local STEM students, representatives from the Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions, and Noise (CLEEN) program visited the ecoDemonstrator. Part of the goal of the day’s program was to “welcome CLEEN II members to our home and discuss the advantages of bringing their business to the Atlantic City area,” according to the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce. The FAA’s national research center sits on the grounds of the Atlantic City International Airport.
The ecoDemonstrator program dates to 2012, when Boeing launched the first flying testbed, a 737. The 777-200, an 18-year-old former passenger liner, is the sixth aircraft to participate. Along the way, ecoDemonstrators have evaluated more than 100 different technologies. More than a third of those have developed into working products for Boeing or one of its research partners. Nearly half remain in development.
The 2019 complement of tests includes a number of flight deck-oriented technologies—including a laser-radar (lidar) system from Ophir that analyzes atmospheric conditions, reading velocity, temperature, pressure, aerosol concentrations, moisture content, and more. Boeing described another flight deck enhancement on board the ecoDemonstrator—an algorithm-driven autoflap system— as “a baby step in the direction of full automation.”
In addition, Boeing showed some of its own developing tech, including “smart” vortex generators that use temperature-sensitive “shape-memory” alloys to passively retract the surfaces in colder air aloft. The VGs show their value only during takeoff and landing, so using the alloys to retract them at altitude eliminates their drag when they are not needed at cruise speeds. Using shape-memory alloys means the independent VGs don’t need to be connected to the aircraft electrical or hydraulic systems.
But the day’s presentation concentrated on new cabin technology, starting from the floor up. The ecoDemonstrator uses a new form of flooring in the cabin entryway designed for lighter weight and better durability. Addressing the crowd of visitors filing in and out through the main cabin door, one of the hosts said, “We need to generate foot traffic as part of this trial. So you are all part of the test team!”
Another flooring innovation on test is the moisture-absorbing “Dry Floor” in the lavatory. “Even on a long flight, you can feel comfortable using the lav in your stocking feet,” said the host. Other lavatory-centric technology on the ecoDemonstrator included UV-based counter-sanitizers and a centralized system for illustrating to passengers which facilities are available, “so you don’t have to crane your neck looking backward to see if the lav is available,” said the host.
In fact, much of the technology on show mirrored “smart home tech,” such as the lav monitor. For flight attendants, the system can track inventory so they’ll know which cabinet contains the last carton of orange juice. It can also monitor for proper stowage of service carts for takeoff and landing, as well as checking overhead luggage bins. And the infamous “seat-back and tray table” warning can now be supplemented by sensors that will identify which passengers have not yet heeded the call.
In addition to providing such alerts, the monitoring system can also spot switches and buttons, ovens, and seat motors, for example, that aren’t working—in some cases alerting ground crews at the destination airport who can locate a replacement part and have it ready for when the plane lands.
The system also monitors pressurization, humidity, and air quality.
“We have lots of telemetry data on engines and aircraft systems,” said host Andre Lutz of Boeing Services in Frankfurt, Germany, “but until now, the cabin has been a black hole.” The newer technologies bring efficiencies and time and energy savings to passenger-centric cabin components.
Boeing’s Jeanne Yu, director of technology integration and head of the ecoDemonstrator department, recently celebrated 30 years with the company. She described the three pillars of the ecoDemonstrator program: "innovate, collaborate, and accelerate implementation.” She cited the shape-memory alloys of the retracting vortex generators and a laser-based turbulence-detection system as two examples of innovation of 50 technologies riding along on the 777-200. Collaboration means testing the technologies and finding synergies, not only between the vendor developers and Boeing but also among the vendors themselves.
As for accelerating implementation, Wu pointed to the history of the program and how much of the technology tested has become mainstream, such as the winglets first tested on the Boeing 737; recycled carbon fiber floors; ceramic-matrix engine nozzles; and increasingly, sustainable aviation fuels. “In 2018, the 777 ecoDemonstrator we flew was the first to use 100 percent biofuel," she said. "Overall, we use about 30 percent biofuel in the program.”