The grounding of Boeing Co.'s 787s around the world has prompted questions about the aircraft's lithium ion batteries, but also over how modern planes have become vast assemblies of outsourced components and operating systems.
The batteries are at the core of the planes' recent troubles, after the emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways flight in Japan this week due to a battery under the cockpit overheating and leaking corrosive electrolyte fluid.
But the vast collection of components by hundred of suppliers that go into a 787 makes troubleshooting potentially more difficult. Although outsourcing has always been a part of commercial aviation, the difference now is the complexity and co-dependence of the electronics operating the aircraft.
The latest round of problems came after a small electrical fire, also involving a lithium ion battery, sparked inside a Japan Airlines plane sitting on the tarmac at Boston's Logan International Airport, as well other recent incidents in different 787s, from a fuel leak to computer malfunction in the brake system.
This led the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and other air regulators throughout the world to ground almost all Boeing 787s in operation globally.
The FAA made clear that the batteries were the focus of its investigation. "These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment," the FAA said.
This then partly directed attention Thursday on the Kyoto, Japan-based battery giant GS Yuasa Corp. which produces the lithium ion power cells. "The cause of the problems is unclear," GS Yuasa spokesman Yasushi Yamamoto told the Associated Press. "We still don't know if the problem is with the battery, the power source or the electronics systems."
Although a relatively newer technology, rechargeable lithium ion batteries serve in everything from laptops and cellphones to hybrid cars. And although they are now being introduced into its commercial aviation aircraft, these types of batteries have long been used by Boeing in its military planes.
Boeing has "a history of pulling technologies from their military aircraft into their civilian stuff as well," said Jeremy Laliberte, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Carlton University.
For instance, the relatively lighter, graphite composite material used for the 787 fuselage is also a crossover from military use and is seen as by far the most revolutionary aspect of the aircraft.
"They've been developing that for decades. So for them, it [using military-tested technology] isn't something new. It's something that that they do have a history with. I think where it's new is putting it on that large of a civilian aircraft for the first time," Prof. Laliberte said.
The aviation community appeared to find comfort in the fact that the FAA investigation was very specific. "It's also helpful that the problem, as we understand it thus far, is eminently fixable. Burning batteries are serious, but this isn't a structural defect that'll wind up costing billions," writer and pilot Patrick Smith said in his popular blog Ask The Pilot.
Little appears to have been made of the batteries before the recent problems, mainly because they seemed such an obvious choice for Boeing to use.
"Lithium ion holds the most energy and is the lightest weight – that's of great importance for airplanes," said Eric Stuve, a professor of chemical engineering and battery expert at the University of Washington. "Boeing worries about how to shave little things off. Every little piece they can get off of an airplane is good. They have a fine science on that."
"All of this stuff is well known. The Boeing people would have been all over this. They're very careful. But something has gone wrong, and now they have to figure out what that is," Prof. Stuve said.
Others, meanwhile, are saying the swift action by regulators, although highly damaging to the public confidence in the aircraft, may actually turn in favour of Boeing by getting to the root of the problem more quickly.
"Regulators are fairly quick to impose those kind of restrictions. They'll immediately order an inspection of an entire fleet. They'll ground aircraft, if needed. So I'm not surprised about the reaction of the authorities," Carlton's Prof. Laliberte said.