The founder of an aerospace company dedicated to manufacturing airframe parachutes for general aviation and legacy aircraft, says that eventually such technology could even guard against sabotage — virtually preventing catastrophes like this week’s Germanwings A320 crash.
Even though IATA, the global trade association for the airline industry, reassured a jittery flying public that air remains the safest way to travel, perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at airframe parachutes for commercial aircraft. That is, not for passengers buckled into the fuselage, but the aircraft itself.
“The sky is going to get more and more crowded and there are going to be even more and more accidents,” Boris Popov, founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based BRS Aerospace, told Forbes. At some point, he says, major airframe manufacturers will be forced to include them as standard operating equipment to mitigate situations including: pilot incapacitation; mid-air collisions; mechanical failure; bird strikes; structural failure; pilot error; and even sabotage.
Since 1993, Popov’s company has been providing general aviation and a few aircraft legacy manufacturers with options for airframe parachutes. BRS notes that FAA-certified tests have shown that full parachute inflation could occur at altitudes as low as 260 feet and, thus far, notes that aircraft using his system have saved well over three hundred lives.
The secret to our system, says Popov, is that it opens almost instantaneously. BRS rocket-propelled parachutes deploy from the back of the aircraft and accelerate to 100 mph. In less than a second, they provide a canopy that stretches tightly over the airframe. Once the aircraft is stable descends at a rate of some 21 feet-per-second which enables it to touchdown with an impact force akin to leaping to the ground from a height of roughly seven feet.
Cirrus and Flight Design already have BRS products as standard equipment and Popov says Cessna has made it an option on two of its models. He says his company has also tested systems capable of deploying parachute systems that can safely bring down 12 passenger commuter aircraft.
As for costs?
“If our parachute tech exceeds 15 percent of the airplane’s value, then buyers start to back off very quickly,” said Popov.
But is the tech available to equip large Airbus- or Boeing-built turbofan “jet” aircraft flying at high altitude with cruise speeds pushing that of sound?
“It basically requires a square foot of material to bring down one pound of aircraft,” said Popov. “For a 500,000-pound Boeing 757, you’ll need half a million square feet of parachute cloth.”
One of the biggest hurdles in using such a system for commercial aircraft is bringing down the weight of the parachute enough to make it economically feasible. Use on larger aircraft, says Popov, will likely have to wait until nanotechnologies can produce artificial man-made silks that are ten times stronger than steel and one tenth the weight of rip-stock nylon.
Popov explains that the immediate next phase of the technology rests in GPS-directed, steerable parachutes that can automatically steer an ailing aircraft away from ground hazards.
“Smart chutes would steer the disabled aircraft to an optimum landing area controlled by GPS-directed steering inputs,” said Popov. “[This has] already done this with cargo delivery parachutes for various military applications.”
The idea says Popov is that if aircraft flying at night over mountainous or densely-populated areas and become disabled, they can automatically be steered into an area more suited for a “safer” landing.
What about over the open ocean?
For aircraft in full cruise mode at high altitude, Popov proposes “smart chutes” that initially only open at 20 percent of their full opening and stay in that configuration until the speed slows enough so that the chute can open without shredding or ripping away from the aircraft.
What about technology that would enable parachutes to deploy in instances of sabotage or hijacking?
We’ve had many internal discussions about developing complex algorithms that would sense when an aircraft was badly off course, approaching terrain, over or under speed, or when the flight deck was not communicating normally. If impact was imminent, he says, these safety algorithms would then trigger the automatic deployment of airframe parachutes.
“It’s well within our technology and the saboteur would have nothing to say about it,” said Popov. “Getting pilots to accept this autonomous system would be a very hard sell, but as artificial intelligence gains acceptance, resistance will decrease.”
This article was written by Bruce Dorminey from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.