A materials revolution has been sweeping aviation science since the 1970’s. The most exciting material development— carbon composite fibers. Standard commercial aircraft has over 4 million parts; the efficiency and versatility of composite materials could reduce this number, and as a result, lighten the weight of modern aircraft by at least 20%. To put that into perspective, for every kilogram of weight reduced by these fibers, an aircraft manufacturer can save around one million dollars in overall production costs.
Fiscal benefit has not gone unnoticed by multinational corporations. For instance, about half of the Boeing 787 airframe is made of carbon composite materials. The Airbus 350 XWB, incorporates the fibers in its fuselage and wing design. So, what are these materials, and why do they matter for the future of aircraft design? Let’s take a look.
Composite carbon fibers are essentially a meld of woven layers of carbon and resin. They combine the strength and resilience of carbon components with the nimble versatility of plastic and fiberglass resins. By incorporating this material into various parts and systems on an aircraft, new innovative approaches for aircraft design have surfaced.
Take for example, the seemingly simple potential of changing antenna placement. Though antennas are integral to the safety of an aircraft, they are rarely the most recognized aircraft part. Antennas are placed on the outside of the airframe, protruding from an aircraft— Their placement is due to the material makeup of the airframe. On any given commercial plane, there can be over 20 antennas extending off of the body
Aluminum alloy is the most common material currently used in airframe builds. Though light and durable, aluminum alloys have a considerable disadvantage— they block antenna signals. Aircraft antennas require the ability to achieve omnidirectional transmission or equal radiation transmission in a spherical pattern where the antenna acts as the origin. The external location of the installments on aluminum fitted aircraft caters to this factor but increases the lift-drag-ratio of the vehicle considerably
Carbon composite materials solve these issues and are comparable to aluminum alloys in weight, durability, and fuel efficiency. With increasing innovation in the use of carbon composite fiber materials, antenna design and location can now be reassessed. One compelling design that is currently undergoing industry testing, is the placement of antennas within a carbon fiber fuselage. This installment location would reduce drag while maintaining full signal efficiency, and, coincidently, reducing the weight of the fuselage.
Antenna placement is only one of the exciting possibilities of inventive aircraft design provided by carbon composite fibers. A proprietary concept design from Airbus, set for release in 2050, shows a change in the standard look of commercial aircraft. Their new design shows a carbon composite U-shaped tail, a larger streamlined fuselage, and engines attached to the airframe. Over time, it is likely that composite fiber will be incorporated into most modern aircraft builds. With the materials revolution in full swing, the iconic shape and design of commercial twin-engine aircraft could get a new-age makeover in years to come.
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