The Dreamliner, in Control

By James W. Ramsey | June 1, 2007
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Using synergy developed with the avionics side of its parent company, Rockwell Collins’ Electromechanical Systems Division (EMS) is expecting to nearly double its business in the next five years, thanks in part to a key contract on the new Boeing 787 program.

Rockwell’s EMS is providing the pilot control system to Boeing for the 787 Dreamliner, which includes the controls and actuators that are linked to the aircraft’s Honeywell fly-by-wire flight control electronics system.

Consisting of four major assemblies, developed using a modular approach for ease of installation and maintenance, the pilot control package is intended to provide operators with a look and feel similar to that of the Boeing 777.

"The 787’s pilot control system provides capabilities to enhance safety and performance, and offers operational commonality with other Boeing flight decks," said Kelly Ortberg, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Rockwell Collins Commercial Systems.

Rockwell’s EMS, with 400 employees at its Irvine, Calif., facilities, was acquired from the parent company of Kaiser Aerospace and Electronics for $300 million in 2000. Although it has other contracts, including those on regional and corporate jets and military aircraft, its major new thrust is being provided by the B787 contract awarded in 2004.

Since the Rockwell acquisition, "we’ve been able to leverage the pilot controls and avionics business together, working with Rockwell Collins, resulting in significant opportunities for this business," said Tony Najjar, EMS general manager.

"The first one was the 787, which was a huge win for us — biggest in our history. Without the integration with Rockwell Collins, it would not have been feasible."

Rockwell Collins also is supplying the flight deck displays, including dual head-up displays provided by its Flight Dynamics unit, another Kaiser acquisition, along with other systems for the B787.

"For the head-up displays, integration opportunities were fairly obvious," said Paul Barnes, director of business development for Rockwell’s EMS.

787 program

Since the contract award in June 2004, Rockwell has been developing the pilot control system, and last July delivered the 787’s first fully operational system, which is being used in Boeing’s integrated test vehicle (ITV) to develop and test the entire flight control system.

"This ITV is connected to a flight control computer as well as all the primary and secondary controls, so the whole aircraft system is integrated with our system," Najjar said.

Rockwell EMS was set to begin qualification, or safety of flight, testing of the pilot controls on its own ITV in mid-April. That "rig" was used previously for four rounds of pilot field evaluations in which Boeing pilots tested the pilot controls — including the back-drives and feel of the handles — and provided input for improvements.

"Now it is being modified to accept the qual hardware for formal qualification testing," Najjar said. "Our safety of flight testing — which is done in parallel with the aircraft build — needs to be done by early June, ready for the first [B787] flight scheduled for August," Najjar explained.

At this writing, Rockwell had delivered all hardware for the first aircraft, except the control stand, which includes the throttle, speed brake, flap, parking brake and alternate flap control modules, due in mid-April. In all, 300 parts had been delivered for various labs, simulators, and test support to other Boeing subcontractors, including Smiths Aerospace, Honeywell, General Electric and Rolls Royce. In addition, hardware was being delivered for Aircraft 2.

Business Units

One of the three major product lines at Rockwell EMS is Actuation Systems, which dates back 20 years and includes actuation for flaps and slats and horizontal stabilizers.

The primary driver of the product area is horizontal stabilizer trim actuators (HSTA) for such programs as the Embraer ERJ 170/190, Cessna Citation X, Dassault F9X, and includes service contracts for Boeing 737, 747, 757, 767 and 777 aircraft.

The HSTAs meet the latest certification standards, with redundancy provided by primary and secondary motors. Clutches are provided to protect system components in the event of a jam condition, and a skewed roller "no back" assembly prevents the actuator from back-driving under the influence of aerodynamic loads alone.

The company has more recently expanded into slat and flap actuation systems and nose wheel steering for the Raytheon Hawker Horizon 4000, the Lockheed P-3C, and DeHavilland Dash 8-400, according to Neil Adams, EMS manager of business development.

Pilot Controls

EMS’s fastest-growing product line is pilot controls, thanks to the 787 program, but due to other contracts from commercial and military customers as well. In fact, the largest volume program currently is for throttle assemblies (controls) for Embraer 170/190 regional jets.

"Traditional pilot control systems were based on throttle assemblies, and through a long line of assemblies that we’ve developed, and some acquisitions of smaller companies, we have accumulated a whole product line," Adams said. "All of it is built here today."

These pilot control systems are now going into the next generation aircraft, including the Dreamliner. Rockwell is not only providing the throttles, but also the units in the pedestal — speed brakes, flaps, slat actuators — and also the rudder pedals and column and yoke.

Some of the equipment being provided to Boeing "has always been, traditionally, products that Boeing built. Most of the OEM airframe manufacturers will build the pedal and yoke systems themselves, because much of it is integrated into the structure of the aircraft," Adams said.

"But now that it’s becoming fly-by-wire, it is becoming more modular. So it can lend itself to outsourcing."

Rockwell EMS concentrates on the mechanical side of pilot controls, its only electronics being the sensing systems that sense positions of the actuators. It also provides the electromechanical back-drives that create "feel" for pilots flying a fly-by-wire flight control system.

"What we are trying to do is create the ‘feel’ of a mechanical cable system. It allows the pilots to feel like they are flying a 1950s aircraft in 2007," Adams said.

In a fly-by-wire aircraft, there is no direct contact between the controls and the flight control surfaces. "But the pilot needs to feel that there is, so most of the mechanism below the floor is to create that artificial feel," Barnes said. "Everything is duplicated, with the pilot and copilot set (of controls) linked together. And then, all the linkages have break-aways in them in case there is a jam on one side. Then the pilot or copilot can break it away."

When the aircraft is in auto-pilot, and the flight control computer makes an input to turn or climb, the columns, wheels and rudder pedals will respond, providing a visual reference for the pilot.

"So it’s not like we’re climbing and nothing moves," Barnes said.

When pilots move the flight controls, inputs are sensed and sent via electrical signal to the flight control computer to direct the aircraft control surfaces. Honeywell provides the flight control electronics package — the primary fly-by-wire control computers and the actuator control electronics — plus sensors to support the fly-by-wire computations.

Rockwell tries to match the feel of a 777 in the new-generation 787 "so a pilot can go in blindfolded, touch it, and it feels exactly the same," Adams said.

This, along with other flight control commonality with the 777 will allow pilots transitioning to the new 787 to do so in a much shorter time. In fact, commonality will result in pilots transitioning from the 777 to the 787 in five days or less, with no motion-based simulator training required.

"Some components that Rockwell Collin has supplied to the 777, we were able to incorporate into the 787," Barnes said. These include back-drive actuators, and a flight control damper. "I wouldn’t say there is a lot of commonality, but we certainly look for areas that we already supply to the 777," he added.

The third EMS product line is called Special Products, which includes a variety of fuel measuring devices and aircraft wastewater management systems. These products include valves that require machining, so EMS concentrates its machining operations in this area, operating as a "job shop" providing machine parts for pilot controls, as well.

As well as producing new components, Rockwell EMS has a substantial repair and overhaul business. The company’s service centers support many of the products originally provided to the aircraft manufacturer and many are repaired at the Irvine facility.

While most of the mechanical elements don’t need replacement, sensors and drive actuators do, Adams said, "so they can be restored and brought back to serviceable condition pretty much indefinitely."

EMS is still repairing components for the SAAB 2000, which has been out of production for 15 years, he added. This contract is through SAAB itself, with most of the units coming through them.

The service centers provide rotable inventory for customers. "Since they (the components) are modular in their design, they pull right out of the console, with only about four connectors," Adams said. "They can send them back, put in a new unit and they are off and running."

The repaired units are checked by a maintenance computer for proper operation and require very little "reset" on the aircraft.

Repairs can take up to 30 days — particularly auto-throttles, which require diagnosis to determine what has failed. All elements of the unit have to be examined. Pilot control components furnished for the 787 — expected to last for a long time — will come back to EMS for repair after aircraft are delivered and are flying, if the airlines choose.

Pilot controls and actuation systems are thoroughly tested prior to delivery. EMS uses a cell structure in its manufacturing. "In pilot controls, every capability is within the cell from start to finish, including buyoff by quality inspectors. It never has to leave this shop. From here it will go straight to shipping, unless an environmental test — cold soaking or heat — is required. Then we will send it across, put it in the oven and bring it back," Adams said.

Deliveries of 787 pilot controls were being made to Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan., where the Dreamliner’s composite nose section is being built.

"We and they will install all of that equipment in the nose of the airplane, so when Boeing actually takes delivery of that section of the airplane, our stuff is already there," Barnes said. "That includes much of the Rockwell Collins product — the head-up displays, the main displays. A lot of the avionics is installed there."

From Wichita, the nose sections will be shipped to Everett, Wash., where the complete 787 is being assembled. "We need to ship the hardware to Spirit in Wichita in as final a configuration as possible. Functional and acceptance testing is conducted here so that when they install it, they require as little adjusting as possible," Barnes said.

Although Rockwell EMS could not say what its specific production rate will be for the 787 program, it knows what Boeing’s requirements will be for "quite a period of time" to enable long-lead time ordering of certain components.

Meanwhile, Honeywell had delivered incremental hardware units and software loads of its flight control electronics to Boeing’s integrated test vehicle, and had delivered the hardware shipset for Airplane 1.

Dreamliner Readies For Takeoff

The first Boeing 787 aircraft, following final assembly in Everett, Wash., at this writing was scheduled to roll out in July. First flight was targeted in late August — launching the Dreamliner’s flight test program, according to Scott Carson, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, during a recent program update.

Major assembly on all main structural elements of the airplane had begun by mid-March, not only on Airplane No. 1, but on follow-on aircraft. Boeing was up to five units of flow on the nose section, which houses the flight deck avionics and pilot controls, at its Wichita facility. Engines were being flight-tested by General Electric and Rolls Royce.

More than 75 percent of systems hardware for Airplane No. 1 had been shipped for installation in structures being built in different countries. For example, horizontal stabilizers are being built by Alenia in Italy, and the vertical fin by Boeing in Frederickson, Wash.

"There are five major systems laboratories that are right in the middle of serious integration testing," said Michael Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program. "We have two big months in front of us in the systems labs as we make sure all the various components talk to each other and work together, as opposed to working independently, which is the testing we’ve done to date."

All of the development testing had been essentially completed, Bair added, and certification testing was underway. There were "no real surprises" in that test program, he said.

"We’ve got a lot of wire bundles that have been manufactured, a lot of wire bundles in flow," Bair said. "Obviously, wiring is always an issue on an airplane program. They tend to be late to be defined and needed early in the assembly process, but we’re feeling better and better about where we are with the wiring part of this airplane, and I don’t anticipate any big issues with wiring."

As of early May, Boeing said its 787 orders reached 567 planes from 44 customers.

First delivery to Japan’s All Nippon Airways has been set for May 2008, "and we are on track to make that happen," Bair said. Boeing expects to deliver 112 airplanes in the first two years. — James Ramsey

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