Tag Archive: innovation

Quieter, cleaner future is Airbus’ newly-announced goal

Image courtesy of Airbus

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

One hundred and twenty years ago, two Ohio bicycle makers, the Wright Brothers, founded the aircraft industry by developing the world’s first motorized airplane. Now the technology leadership of that industry is lifting off for the EU, where the multi-national EADS (Airbus) is headquartered. On September 21st, Airbus announced a major, strategic initiative called “InNOVAtion” that lassos all of the technology advances in physics, materials science, and electrically powered flight and ties them to the global demand for aircraft that can be significantly cleaner, environmentally sustainable, and quieter.

This is a very big deal as anyone in the aircraft industry will attest–2020 marks an early stage of what is already understood to be a significant and necessary transformation of this huge, and very rich, industry which has been America’s leading, federally-supported export since WWII.

But this is not the first time the Wright brothers’ invention has been taken over by outsiders. When America’s power brokers turned up their noses at the two under-educated Ohio bicycle-builders fledgling innovation, Germany enthusiastically encouraged the Wrights, and by WWII Germany was far ahead in both internal combustion-fueled and rocket-fueled flight. Germany’s dominance in the early stages of WWII provoked the U.S.’s competitive drive to re-capture the industry, something that was only accomplished with the help of thousands of German scientists who emigrated here after WWII.

Why aren’t Boeing and it’s engine partner GE—those once unbeatable, rich and globally domineering hegemons—taking the lead in the current re-invention of this extraordinarily successful, American industry? That’s a long story but it includes their cozy, undemanding relationship with the FAA and their short-term, Wall Street-driven focus on shareholder return instead of innovation.

Here at Quiet Communities, Inc. and The Quiet Coalition, we’ve focused for nearly a decade on a method we call “Push-Pull.” Push-Pull achieves change by focusing on both pushing government and communities to envision quieter, cleaner futures, and pulling companies and communities to accelerate development of technologies and methods that deliver the products and solutions we all need for healthier lives and an environmentally sustainable world.

So we’re thrilled to see Airbus embracing it’s leadership role and leading the way. Maybe their initiative will wake up and push the FAA, Boeing, GE, the Department of Defense, and Congress so that they understand that cozy, undemanding relationships backed by gigantic government subsidies are a recipe for losing a vital industry, not for growing it.

Our colleague Arline Bronzaft sent me this wonderful quote: “It’s time for all to come together and to come to grips with the problem of aviation noise, and to build, at long last, an air transportation system that is safe, healthy and quieter.” Arline was being ironic–the statement was delivered at a conference 44 years ago, on April 5, 1976, by EPA leader Russell Train.

Maybe the new competition from Airbus will change some entrenched minds in Washington and Seattle so that Russell Train’s statement will take on a second life.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Quiet aircraft coming to an airport near you?

Photo credit: Pedro Aragão licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

People who live near airports have struggled with noise for over 50 years. The first attempts to address this problem began in 1967, literally 50 years ago! But frankly, there’s been more progress on this issue outside the U.S., where, for example, the World Health Organization has addressed the burden of disease from environmental noise and the European Union has established night noise guidelines for Europe.

Meanwhile, here on American soil, the struggle continues with groups like the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and regional Quiet Skies groups experimenting with different approaches. A variety of strategies have been tested with varying success: petitions, fines, law suits, noise curfews, legislation, even complete airport shutdowns. Every American community that has confronted this issue realizes it’s a tough, long, uphill battle against powerful regulatory agencies and corporations that are more committed to commerce than to public health and welfare.

So, why can’t Boeing or somebody just make a quiet aircraft?

Actually they can—that is, the EU conglomerate Airbus canand already does. And the world’s largest passenger airplane, also made by Airbus–the A380–is the quietest both inside and out. So this isn’t a technological problem. Rather, aircraft engineers, manufacturers (other than Airbus), and the airlines that buy their planes, don’t seem to care about the impact of their products on those on the ground.

Interestingly, the quiet jet engine on the Airbus A320neo is made by the American company Pratt & Whitney.

Hooray! So why don’t U.S. airlines buy the A320neo equipped with its quiet jet engines? Wouldn’t this help to address the aircraft noise problem?

Good question.

For U.S. residents there’s also this good news: a new NASA program to develop quiet electric aircraft was recently announced, but the quiet electric aircraft are small propeller craft, so this is the kind of innovation you’ll see at smaller local airports in a few years.

What about helicopters? Can they make quiet helicopters too? The answer is yes again. Quiet, electric helicopters are also in development.

Conclusion? Maybe “technology substitution”–which works in other sectors–is the uniquely American way out of this dilemma.

At any rate, government-funded research and development (R&D) efforts by NASA and Pratt & Whitney demonstrate that somebody is listening! And in typical American fashion, it appears we will invent our way out of the airport noise mess by convincing the government to accelerate funding of both public and private sector R&D—from which entrepreneurs and business titans will reap rewards later.

At The Quiet Coalition and our host, Quiet Communities, we believe that local and regional anti-noise groups might have greater success if, in addition to the other strategies they’re already trying, they also emphasize “technology substitution.” This approach has worked well in cities and towns on issues like:

– leaf blowers and lawn mowers (convince your parks and recreation department to buy electric!);
– motorcycles (get them off Harleys and onto quieter electric motorcycles);
– appliances (the best-selling dishwasher these days is made in Germany and has become very popular worldwide because it’s quiet);
– air conditioning equipment (the best-selling household air-conditioning equipment is the quiet kind from Korea called “mini-splits” that were engineered to be quiet); and
– outdoor concerts (where wireless headsets are replacing noisy outdoor concert venues).

So our tech-driven American approach to “progress” may eventually get us to a quieter end-state—but the emphasis is on eventually.

In the meantime, until quieter times arrive, those of us who live near airports will have to either continue wearing earplugs or maybe experiment with the new “smart earbuds” that are now available.

And don’t forget the final option: move to a quieter neighborhood where your house isn’t underneath a flight path! Because you might have to wait a while before the above solutions arrive.

David Sykes chairs/co-chairs four national professional groups in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, ANSI S12 WG44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group. He is also a former board member of the American Tinnitus Association, co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, served as lead-author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), and was a contributor to “Technology for a Quieter America” (2011, National Academy of Engineering). A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.