Enter the maze

Back (page) in the air

by Peter McOwan, Queen Mary University of London

Hand reaching out to bird: copyright www.istockphoto.com 35796044

Illness meant Ada spent much of her childhood confined to bed, but she put the time to productive use as she imagined ways to allow her to fly. She studied bird flight, decided on materials to build her flying machine from, and even came up with an idea to incorporate steam engine technology to power the flight. It’s fitting therefore that many of the advances in flight today are powered not by steam, but by advances in computing that she helped establish.

No pilot needed

Computers now can fly planes on their own. It’s perfectly possible for a jumbo jet to take off from London and land in New York safely without a pilot doing anything. The autopilot computer can do it all. Modern fighter jets are only kept in the air by the computer - a human couldn’t react fast enough. To make them maneuverable the wings are smaller which means without the computer’s constant adjustments they would just drop out of the sky.

Flight of fancy - Flies like a brick

Smart doors

If you've been in a plane and wondered what it means when the attendant announces "Cabin crew, doors to automatic and cross check", it’s a little bit of automated computer safety going on. Doors on planes need to work like normal doors to let people on and off when it’s parked in the airport, but when in flight the doors have a different role. If the plane suffers an accident then when the door is opened it needs to instantly deploy the built in inflatable evacuation chute to allow passengers to slide out in a hurry. The call for doors to automatic is the cue for the flight attendant to throw the switch on the door to allow this important safety feature to activate. Cross check means they should check the same has been done on the opposite door too. When the plane arrives safely the announcement doors to manual is made, and the switch deactivated so the doors can open again without the chute inflating.

Flight of fancy - Doors are more

Circuit spreading to a horizon: copyright www.istockphoto.com 22521471

Wing and a prayer

All today's aircraft are designed and flown [ITALIC] in [END ITALIC] a computer. Using precise mathematical formulae that allow engineers to calculate how air will pass over various wing and aeroplane body shapes it’s possible to come up with new shapes that are safer, quieter and more fuel efficient. Many engineers now consider the crash-worthiness of their designs, looking at how best to design the elements to protect the passengers or cargo should something unexpected happen. 3D computer printed models are also built to test the shapes in wind tunnels, where computers analyse the way streams of smoke flow over the surfaces to work out the best constructions.

Flight of fancy - Wind and worrying

Back to base

Space flight by standard rocket is expensive and wasteful. In a traditional rocket tons of fuel are packed into the rocket body, so the rocket motors need to lift these fuel tanks as well as the rocket payload. Once the fuel is used up traditional rockets drop the used fuel tank, which is both expensive and needs to be done over the open sea to prevent accidents. A new generation of rockets are being developed which allow these empty fuel tanks to fly away under computer control and land safely back at the launch site to be reused, so massively reducing the cost and waste.

Flight of fancy - Home, home to the range

Microwave for the save

Computer systems controlling high power microwave generators and high speed high accuracy phased arrays of tracking antennas, could soon allow a new cheaper way to fly to space by doing away with fuel tanks almost entirely. Using a powerful set of microwave projectors on the ground it could be possible to beam this energy direct to a rocket where it can heat a small store of onboard propellant to provide the rocket motor thrust needed. The microwave system needs to track the rocket at high speed keeping the microwave link on target, switching it off momentarily should, say, a flock of birds pass by. This method could significantly reduce the cost of flight to low earth orbit, by allowing single stage to orbit, fully reusable space-planes to operate more like conventional planes than traditional chemical rockets.

Flight of fancy - Heat up the sky