MCAS And The 737: When Small Changes Have Huge Consequences

When the first 737 MAX entered service in May of 2017, it was considered a major milestone for Boeing. For nearly a decade, the aerospace giant had been working on a more fuel efficient iteration of the classic 737 that first took to the skies in 1967. Powered by cutting-edge CFM International LEAP engines, and sporting modern aerodynamic improvements such as unique split wingtips, Boeing built the new 737 to have an operating cost that was competitive with the latest designs from Airbus. With over 5,000 orders placed between the different 737 MAX variants, the aircraft was an instant success.

But now, in response to a pair of accidents which claimed 346 lives, the entire Boeing 737 MAX global fleet is grounded. While the investigations into these tragedies are still ongoing, the preliminary findings are too similar to ignore. In both cases, it appears the aircraft put itself into a dive despite the efforts of the crew to maintain altitude. While the Federal Aviation Administration initially hesitated to suspend operations of the Boeing 737 MAX, they eventually agreed with government regulatory bodies all over the world to call for a temporary ban on operating the planes until the cause of these accidents can be identified and resolved.

For their part, Boeing maintains their aircraft is safe. They say that grounding the fleet was done out of an “abundance of caution”, rather than in direct response to a particular deficiency of the aircraft:

Boeing continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX.  However, after consultation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.

Until both accident investigations are completed, nobody can say with complete certainty what caused the loss of the aircraft and their passengers. But with the available information about what changes were made during the 737 redesign, along with Boeing’s own recommendations to operators, industry insiders have started to point towards a fault in the plane’s new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) as a likely culprit in both accidents.

Despite the billions of dollars spent developing these incredibly complex aircraft, and the exceptionally stringent standards their operation is held to, there’s now a strong indication that the Boeing 737 MAX could be plagued with two common issues that we’ve likely all experienced in the past: a software glitch and poor documentation.

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When New Space Loses Out To NASA Pragmatism

You’ve got to admit, things have been going exceptionally well for SpaceX. In the sixteen years they’ve been in operation, they’ve managed to tick off enough space “firsts” to make even established aerospace players blush. They’re the first privately owned company to not only design and launch their own orbital-class rocket, but to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. The first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket is the world’s only orbital booster capable of autonomous landing and reuse, and their Falcon Heavy has the highest payload capacity of any operational launch system. All of which they’ve managed to do at a significantly lower cost than their competition.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V

So it might come as a surprise to hear that SpaceX recently lost out on a lucrative NASA launch contract to the same entrenched aerospace corporations they’ve been running circles around for the last decade. It certainly seems to have come as a surprise to SpaceX, at least. Their bid to launch NASA’s Lucy mission on the Falcon 9 was so much lower than the nearly $150 million awarded to United Launch Alliance (ULA) for a flight on their Atlas V that the company has decided to formally protest the decision. Publicly questioning a NASA contract marks another “first” for the company, and a sign that SpaceX’s confidence in their abilities has reached the point that they’re no longer content to be treated as a minor player compared to heavyweights like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

But this isn’t the first time NASA has opted to side with more established partners, even in the face of significantly lower bids by “New Space” companies. Their decision not to select Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane for the Commercial Crew program in 2014, despite it being far cheaper than Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, triggered a similar protest to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO). In the end, the GAO determined that Boeing’s experience and long history justified the higher sticker price of their spacecraft compared to the relative newcomer.

NASA has yet to officially explain their decision to go with ULA over SpaceX for the Lucy mission, but in light of what we know about the contract, it seems a safe bet they’ll tell SpaceX the same thing they told Sierra Nevada in 2014. The SpaceX bid might be lower, but in the end, NASA’s is willing to pay more to know it will get done right. Which begs the question: at what point are the cost savings not compelling enough to trust an important scientific mission (or human lives) to these rapidly emerging commercial space companies?

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The Photo Lab That Flew To The Moon

When planning a trip by car these days, it’s pretty much standard practice to spin up an image of your destination in Google Maps and get an idea of what you’re in for when you get there. What kind of parking do they have? Are the streets narrow or twisty? Will I be able to drive right up, or will I be walking a bit when I get there? It’s good to know what’s waiting for you, especially if you’re headed someplace you’ve never been before.

NASA was very much of this mind in the 1960s, except the trip they were planning for was 238,000 miles each way and would involve parking two humans on the surface of another world that we had only seen through telescopes. As good as Earth-based astronomy may be, nothing beats an up close and personal look, and so NASA decided to send a series of satellites to our nearest neighbor to look for the best places to land the Apollo missions. And while most of the feats NASA pulled off in the heyday of the Space Race were surprising, the Lunar Orbiter missions were especially so because of how they chose to acquire the images: using a film camera and a flying photo lab.

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Hackaday Links: May 28, 2017

Boeing and DARPA are building a spaceplane. Right now it’s only a press release and a few concept images, but it looks like this is an air-launched system kind of like a Tristar/Pegasus, only much higher and completely unmanned. It’s a ton and a half to low earth orbit, with a goal of 10 flights in 10 days.

Up in Albany? There’s a new hacker con happening in a few weeks. Anycon is a hacking, infosec, and cyber security conference happening June 16 & 17th in Albany, NY. The organizers of this con ([Chris], and his company Leet Cybersecurity) are loosely modeling this con after Derbycon. [Dave Kennedy] of TrustedSec will be attending as the keynote speaker.

GOOD NEWS! [Casey Neistat] is under investigation by the FAA. [Casey Neistat] is the YouTuber that flies drones right in the middle of the Hudson River corridor, and is a menace to general aviation around NYC.

This is neat. The Supplyframe Design Lab is the Hackaday Mothership right in the middle of Pasadena where we host our designers in residence, host a few meetups, and slowly fill every cubic inch of space with either dust or tools. The Design Lab just won a design award. You can check out the ‘design’ part of the Design Lab here, but keep in mind it will never be that clean ever again.

Here’s an interesting Twitter to follow. Alitronik is a curator of the weird and wonderful cheap crap that can be found on AliExpress. Need an Altera Cyclone dev board? Here you go. A desk-mountable OLED inspection microscope? Done. A seven dollar Tesla coil? Dude, you can totally fit this inside a hat.

[Drygol] had a nice old Commodore C16 with a broken TED chip. A shame, really. He did what anyone would do: put a C64 motherboard in the case for a fancy stealth upgrade.

Is the great crowdfunded 3D printer boom over? Some would say that ship sailed after dozens of 3D printer crowdfunding projects failed to deliver, or delivered very low-quality machines. These people were wrong. This Polaroid-branded 3D printing pen might not get funding. A year ago, this project would have been funded on day one. There would have been writeups in The Verge on how Polaroid is turning the corner after decades of wasted opportunities. Now, the Crowdfunded 3D printer boom is finally over.

The Hackaday crew was at the Bay Area Maker Faire last weekend and holy crap did we have a blast. Everyone came to the meetup on Saturday except for the fire marshall. The secret OSHPark bringahack on Sunday was even more impressive. We also saw a Donkey Car capable of driving around a track autonomously, but the team behind it didn’t have their work up on the Internet at the time.

Boeing’s New Microlattice, Now The Lightest “Metal” Ever

Mr McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr McGuire: Plastics.

You may recognize the above dialog from the movie “The Graduate” starring a young [Dustin Hoffman], whose character is getting advice about what line of work he should get into after university. Maybe Mr McGuire’s advice should have been “Microlattice.”

If you take a step back for a moment and survey the state of materials, you’ll see that not much has changed in the last 50 years. We’re still building homes out of dead trees, and most cars are still made out of iron(although that is starting to change.) It’s only been just recently has there been advances in batteries technology – and that only came about with the force of a trillion-dollar mobile phone industry behind it. So we’re excited by any new advance we see, and Boeing’s new “Microlattice” tickles our fancy.

Boeing isn’t giving away the recipe just yet, but here is what we know: it’s 99.99% empty space, making it extremely light. It’s so light, that if you drop it, it floats to the ground. It’s also compressible, giving it the ability to absorb energy and spring back (you can see it in action in the after the break.) It’s made by creating a sacrificial skeletal structure the shape of the final lattice, then coating that template with nickel-phosphorus alloy. The temporary inner structure is then etched away, leaving a “microlattice” of tiny interconnected hollow rods with wall thickness of about 100 nanometers. Of course it doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out why Boeing is interested in such materials, they are eye it as an extremely lightweight building material for planes and spacecraft.

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Boeing 777 From Manilla Folders, A 6+ Year Effort

The closer you look the more you will be in awe of this shockingly intricate 777 replica. The fully-articulating landing gear alone has over 2,000 parts and 200 hours of assembly, not even including the penny-sized tires with individually-cut lug nuts. All carved from manilla office folders by hand.

HAD - 777 WingA high school art architecture class in 2008 inspired this build by teaching a few papercrafting techniques. When [Luca] got a hold of a precision Air India 777-300ER schematic, he started building this 5 foot long 1:60 scale model. His project has received a fair amount of media attention over the years, including some false reports that he was so focused on the build that he dropped out of college (he did, for 2 years, but for other reasons). 6.5 years in the making, [Luca] is rounding the homestretch.

HAD - 777 GearThe design is manually drawn in Illustrator from the schematics, then is printed directly onto the manilla folders. Wielding an X-acto knife like a watch-maker, [Luca] cuts all the segments out and places them with whispers of glue. Pistons. Axles. Clamps. Tie rods. Brackets. Even pneumatic hoses – fractions of a toothpick thin – are run to their proper locations. A mesh behind the engine was latticed manually from of hundreds of strands. If that was not enough, it all moves and works exactly as it does on the real thing.

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Retrotechtacular: Supersonic Transport Initiatives

In the early days of PBS member station WGBH-Boston, they in conjunction with MIT produced a program called Science Reporter. The program’s aim was explaining modern technological advances to a wide audience through the use of interviews and demonstrations. This week, we have a 1966 episode called “Ticket Through the Sound Barrier”, which outlines the then-current state of supersonic transport (SST) initiatives being undertaken by NASA.

MIT reporter and basso profondo [John Fitch] opens the program at NASA’s Ames research center. Here, he outlines the three major considerations of the SST initiative. First, the aluminium typically used in subsonic aircraft fuselage cannot withstand the extreme temperatures caused by air friction at supersonic speeds. Although the Aérospatiale-BAC Concorde was skinned in aluminium, it was limited to Mach 2.02 because of heating issues. In place of aluminium, a titanium alloy with a melting point of 3,000°F is being developed and tested.

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