Monday, January 28, 2008

Defending airliners against terrorist attack

A sign of the times, fitting airliners with equipment to defend against a missile attack. Three 767s owned by American Airlines will be fitted with the system developed by BAE Systems. The system detects the heat from an incoming missile and uses a laser to jam or confuse the missile's guidance. How tech! But there are said to be thousands of unaccounted for MANPADs (man portable anti-aircraft missile systems) and several incidents were commercial aircraft have been targeted by these weapons so the need is there.

The test on the 3 airliners will not entail testing the laser beams however but is to test the effect the attached system has on the aircraft's aerodynamics and everyday operations. Israeli airline El Al has already installed an anti-missile system on some airliners, said to be in a response to the possession of SA-7 missiles by Hamas. Of course in 2002 an El Al airliner was targeted by missiles in Kenya. British Airways have also considered it.

So what exactly are these defence systems? The articles do not specify what system is to be tested though BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman have developed a military system called AAQ-24 Nemesis which includes laser turrets so i assume the American Airlines airliners are being fitted either with this system or a derived one.

Of course countermeasures to held defend again incoming missiles have been around for as long as there have been anti-aircraft missiles. In the past aircraft dispensed flares (for infrared seeking threats) and chaff (for radar guided threats) but modern IR guided missiles are not so easily fooled by flares anymore. Nemesis is a Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) which basically means the countermeasure is directed against the threat not sprayed everywhere. Ultraviolent sensors detect and track the incoming missile and then the laser jammer is targeted at the missile to hopefully confuse it enough to send it off course.

References :

BAE Systems gets funding for anti-missile testing - Flight International (07/01/08)
El Al Airlines installs anti-missile systems on passenger aircraft - Haaretz (15/02/06)
AN/AAQ-24(V) NEMESIS - Northrop Grumman brochure

Return of the sailing cargo ship?

As fuel costs grow and worries about finite hydrocarbon fuels increase mankind is finally looking seriously at alternative forms of power it seems. One is to harness the power of the wind to power a ship. Now this may seem familiar! Sail powered commercial ships had largely disappeared from the high seas by the mid-part of the 20th century but now they could be going to make a comeback... kind of.

A German company, Beluga Shipping GmbH, has fitted a freighter with a giant kite (which can be described as a kite ship though the company seem to prefer to call it a skysail naturally). The MS Beluga SkySails has been fitted with a paraglider type device with 320m2 sail area that can help pull the ship along in favourable conditions.

Computer optimisation and control is used to make the most of the wind and it is hoped this can help reduce fuel consumption by up to 35%. Some are doubting the viability of the scheme according to the news report (some unnamed "experts") and also have voiced concerns over safety though the idea has been used on land vehicles so why not give it a try. Bigger sails are planned. It may look a bit strange but if it can reduce running costs by $6000 a day as is claimed by the company then no one would worry about that!

This isn't the first time someone has tried to resurrect the sail for commercial shipping. In the 1970s and 1980s the U.S. and Japan were among those looking at such hybrid sail-diesel powered ships. One example was the Shin-Aitoku Maru by the Japanese company Aitoku. This was an oil tanker that could unfurl computer controlled sails during wind to augment it's diesel powerplant. Computers aboard made adjustments between the sail and diesel power to achieve the most fuel efficient propulsion. Fuel savings of 10-15% were claimed over a 3 year trial period compared to a sister ship which just had diesel power.

Other people are working on using sails for commercial shipping too, such as this article from 2005 shows on a car ferry design.

References :

"Giant kite can help ships cut fuel use" - Times of India website
"Riding the wind" - TIME magazine October 1980
Shin Aitoku Maru photo from Jane's Merchant Ships 1982 (taken from here)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Solar powered carbon dioxide derived fuel

The search goes on for alternative sources of fuel once the "oil runs out" (mind you there have been some recent big finds off the coast of Brazil showing that oil might be around for awhile yet). Now this latest alternative sounds like a wet dream : using solar power to turn carbon dioxide into fuel!

US government Sandia scientists have developed what they call the Counter Rotating Ring Receiver Reactor Recuperator (CR5). This uses sunlight to turn CO2 into carbon monoxide. This is then mixed with water to produce hydrogen and CO2, and that CO2 is in turn converted back into carbon monoxide. This is then mixed with the hydrogen to create syngas. This can then be converted into a heavy paraffin wax which can then be refined into fuel using conventional refinery methods. There you go, easy.

This process is said to be "a good 15 to 20 years away from being on the market".

References :

"Jet fuel from solar-powered carbon disassociation process possible, say scientists" - Flight International
"'Huge' gas field found off Brazil" - BBC News

Friday, January 18, 2008

Law enforcement blimps over Caracas

An article i read earlier this year on a new initiative in law enforcement in Venezuela could have interesting ramifications elsewhere especially in places like Iraq. According to this Reuters article the police in Caracas have bought a number of remotely controlled blimps to assist in law enforcement (not actually Zeppelins as the article states as this name implies rigid airship not a blimp but anyway). The unmanned airships will perform a monitoring role similar to as is performed by helicopters elsewhere but with a number of advantages. Helicopters are expensive to run and noisy, airships are much cheaper and an unmanned airship can remain on station for a much longer period because of the inherent advantage of lighter-than-air aircraft : they do not use up fuel to stay airborne. The airships will carry cameras to relay messages to the Police HQ.

HanGIS HAN1430 blimp

The idea of using blimps for law enforcement isn't new, an article in the 1981 Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future ("The Airship Returns" by Norman J. Mayer) mentioned the possibility of replacing helicopters with airships for some police operations. Much lower cost of operation and noise plus the ability for much longer endurance were cited as major advantages for these kinds of machines. A problem airships have suffered of course is that they are considered old fashioned.

Of course the major user of the airship was the Germans between 1900 and 1940, they used the airship for reconnaissance and bombing in the first world war and in the interwar period for passenger and cargo transport. The combat effectiveness of the airship was soon surpassed by the aeroplane however and indeed it can be seen that during WW1 airship design hardly evolved but aeroplane technology increased at an incredible rate (Stephenson 2004). The fact an airship was a huge slow moving bag of highly inflammable gas didn't help matters of course. Weather has also been an enemy of the airship with many lost due to storms .

The usage of helium instead of hydrogen and the non-rigid smaller blimp design saw airships see combat experience in the US up until 1961 (Gunston 1985), blimps providing an invaluable role in anti-submarine warfare and later for AEW. Again their endurance proving invaluable. However the US Navy considered the airship to be "archaic" and disbanded their fleet.

US Navy N Class Blimp

In the late 1970s and 1980s, with the blimp being largely reduced to the commercial Goodyear blimps, attention once again turned to the airship however, this time as an unmanned surveillance platform with incredible endurance. One project was Lockheed's Hi-Spot. This was a design for a high-altitude unmanned airship for surveillance and over the horizon targeting. It would have taken advantage of materials not available to Count Zeppelin such as kevlar and tedlar to give it a very strong yet light envelope. Computer control would be used to optimise the fuel use though solar power would also be possible to augment the finite fuel supply. Indeed a high altitude airship would be an excellent contender for solar power. Stated endurance for such a type was 100 days but maybe even longer.

Solar power would also be an option in warmer climes such as Iraq for example even if the blimp would operate at lower altitude. An unmanned surveillance blimp could have very long endurance if it could use solar power as much as possible, just using it's fuel supply for "action moments". The stated payload of a Caracas style blimp is 20KG so it would not be possible to arm such a blimp to counter any insurgency it discovered. However on station UCAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper could be vectored in and use targeting information from the blimp's sensors. A larger blimp might have the payload to carry armament but it would also become a very easy target (though this may be reduced by use of transparent material for the envelope perhaps). The Caracas blimp has a length of nearly 15m and a height of 5.5m so to carry a larger payload would require a fairly large blimp!

References :

"Venezuela launches Zeppelin to tackle rampant crime" by Christian Oliver (Reuters 2007)
"Zeppelins : German Airships 1900-1940" by Charles Stephenson (Osprey 2004)
"Warplanes of the future" by Bill Gunston (Salamander 1985)
"The Airship Returns" by Norman J. Mayer - 1981 Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future (Encyclopedia Britannica 1980)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Using Google Earth to discover archaeological sites

An excellent tool for archaeologists is aerial survey photography which can be used to reveal the outlines of buried ancient sites much easier than a ground-based observer would be able to. Until the advent of Google Earth access to this kind of imagery was difficult and expensive but now of course anyone can view it for free (well anyone with a decent computer and internet connection anyway). Archaeologists are now using Google Earth to look for previously unknown archaeological sites.

Archaeologist Scott Madry used Google Earth to search for the Celtic Aedui in Burgundy, France. He found 101 possible sites, though he did know where to look and what to look for. The first person to discover ancient ruins however was probably Luca Mori who was looking at his own home in GE when he discovered some unusual shading nearby. He contacted local archaeologists who investigated and found it was the remains of a Roman villa!

References :

"Web lets UNC prof do armchair archaeology" - News & Observer
"Internet maps reveal Roman villa" - BBC News

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Not Classic Jetliners (1) : Convair 880

In a new series i will be looking back to some of the jet airliners that never made it. These are jetliners i (usually) love but were commercial failures. This series thus harks back to a day when there was more than just Boeing and Airbus to fly on.

It is pretty much forgotten these days but back in the classic days of Boeing 707s, Douglas DC-8s and Vickers VC-10s you also had Convair's attempts at a jet airliner. The Convair 880 was not a success though and only sold 65 examples. The 880 was faster than the 707 but more expensive to run and even back in the cheap oil days of the 1960s that was key. General Dynamics made a huge loss on the 880 and it's sister airliner the 990 though one was sold to Elvis as his personal plane. By 1975 none were still in service with major airlines though a few continues in service as cargo airliners and in one case a test plane for the US Navy until the late 1990s.

I've always thought it was one of the best looking jet airliners. None are flying nowadays but a few still exist around the world, one in Portugal now serves as a strip club apparently. Despite only 65 being sold it was involved in 17 accidents and 5 hi-jackings so it was not a lucky jet.

Photo from

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

A robotic "flying fish"

The University of Michigan in the USA has developed a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) with a difference... its a floatplane! The Flying Fish is thought to be the first UAV to be able to make it's own take-offs and landings from the sea (certainly i can't think of another one. The closest is probably the Fairey Queen radio-controlled drone conversion of the Royal Navy Fairey IIIF floatplane in the early 1930s though that was launched by a catapult.) It has been developed as part of a U.S. defence project for "persistent ocean surveillance".

The university team took it's inspiration from nature, especially sea birds and flying fish. The size of the UAV, with it's 2m wingspan is similar to many sea birds indeed it is said to be the same size as a large pelican.

The UAV is fully autonomous, using GPS to detect where it is as direct it during it's operation. The UAV is intended as a surveillance buoy, able to remain on station for long periods of time patrolling in a designated area. Because it has no human control a way had to be developed to take off and land from the water totally autonomously and "blind". Later on the team may develop sensors to detect waves and try and avoid them.

The team later will add solar power panels to the electric UAV to augment the battery supply and see if the endurance can be increased.

References :

‘Flying Fish’ unmanned aircraft takes off and lands on water - University of Michigan press release (05/12/07)
Seaplane UAV eyed as persistent ocean buoy - Flight International (24/12/07)
Jane's RPVs : Robot Aircraft Today by John W.R. Taylor (Jane's 1977)

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Welcome to Reborn Technology

Welcome to my blog, dedicated to old and retro technology as well as the ways old ideas can be applied to today's problems.