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Boeing Wants to Help Get People Back on Planes. Here’s How

The challenge isn’t as easy as making a bad smartphone last longer. Instead, companies like Boeing (Boeing) are using artificial intelligence to build more powerful, reliable engines.

It’s part of a campaign at the Seattle-based aerospace giant to find better ways to inspect more critical components and more quickly fix them. Boeing is spending $1 billion in fiscal 2019 to strengthen the defense and commercial side of its business and deepen relationships with customers and suppliers across the U.S.

The advancements are spurring a conversation at the nation’s airports about taking advantage of the expertise that might otherwise go to waste. “There’s really not a whole lot that’s done in-flight and on the ground to deal with, say, having someone have a problem with the sensor,” said Paul Fischbeck, lead of Boeing’s Office of Global Partnerships and a former director of operations and support at the Colorado Springs, Colorado-based Moffett Field Airport. “Not even a phone gets inspected every day.”

Much of the discussion at the airports comes on a smaller scale, where owners have started talking to software and sensor vendors about the value of what Boeing already does, without having to depend on a company or organization, said Scott Sheldon, director of program performance analysis and assurance at the Western Air Maintenance and Engineering Services Inc.

The North Dakotan operates Minot Airport in North Dakota, which consists of 1,700 miles of runways and covers 6,800 acres across a remote area. It employs about 150 engineers, mechanics and flight attendants. Not far from Minot is a former Cold War artillery site that the city bought for $5 million and developed into an aviation park anchored by the airplanes.

Sheldon said it costs about $4 million a year to run a maintenance facility, with Boeing paying 75 percent of the annual operating budget. It is one of several smaller airports in and around town that Boeing works with, both to monitor aircraft and develop technologies that it can use in place of on-site component inspections.

“This is more of an initial tranche into what I think can become a deep partnership between Boeing and industry,” Sheldon said.

Satellites

The Air Force recently launched the Pacific and North Atlantic Integrated Infrared System, a mid-Earth satellite designed to provide improved radar coverage for air and naval combat. The new satellite, based on a Boeing platform, runs a program called Integrated Aviation Service Assurance, which uses satellite observations to quickly verify the performance of a range of critical systems, from avionics to avionics diagnostics to instrumentation and flight controls. It “gives us about a year in advance of another satellite coming online,” Fischbeck said. “So instead of having to go to the next tenant of the vehicle, the fifth airplane that enters the circuit with a lemon, we can develop an alternative solution and have that delivered over the next 12 months.”

Robert Siemienski, senior manager of procurement with the Air Force, said the Space and Missile Systems Center is using Boeing’s offering as a “sole source for the new, upgraded IRIS system for the aircraft armament and munitions shops.”

The Air Force wants to beef up and improve situational awareness in the same way the Army is doing through the Army Materiel Command’s Integrated Plan of Emerging Threats (IPEC) effort. And it’s a strong fit, according to the service. Siemienski is a member of a recently-launched North American Aerospace Defense Command-Air Force service task force that Boeing says it created to pursue opportunities between the military and aerospace industry. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has also held planning sessions with Boeing, Siemienski said.

Richard Graves, vice president of Boeing’s planning and business development for the commercial sector, said the global aviation market is expected to grow 4 percent per year through 2027, with $1.5 trillion in new passenger and freight capacity expected to be added in that time frame. Boeing plans to fulfill about two-thirds of that growth via new planes, although projects that will be in service after 2027 are, Graves said, a key part of the next-generation aircraft business. The 737 MAX series is a new-generation fuel-efficient aircraft that has impressed Boeing’s customers and rival Airbus, which earlier this week launched a new product cycle with the A321neo family of aircraft. “We’ve got a billion-dollar question mark over the next 30 years with regard to how we are going to meet demand,” Graves said.

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