Advances in flexible electronics could lead to better air travel experience, says Bombardier designer

TORONTO — The aerospace industry isn’t too concerned about flexible and hybrid electronics, but it has the potential to significantly lighten the burden on passengers and airline operators, said Bombardier’s Robert Grant.

Grant, the company’s senior industrial designer in advanced interiors, walked audience members at this year’s CPES event through an airport journey he suggested isn’t that far-fetched. The trip begins and ends with a printed smart bracelet that contains your travel details, boarding ticket and other necessary information. Grant said he has an archive full of concepts similar to the one he discussed at the event, and joked the rest of the engineering team at Bombardier sometimes lets him come out of his layer to talk about them.

“I thought printed circuitry was a stretch … but I’m optimistic we could actually push some of these concepts,” he said, adding a lot of the conversations at the event around printed circuitry made him more confident about his idea.

“New technology should be used to lighten the burden on the passenger and organization,” explained Grant. “Our travel experience right now is a series of challenges and lineups.”

The wristband, he went on to say, could also be scanned by security to verify one’s identity and travel details, and boarding could be reduced to airline operators signaling passengers directly through the bracelet when it’s their turn to board, eliminating congestion at the gates.

“Even with zones, people start forming lines ahead of time and try to jump in as soon as it’s their turn to board,” said Grant.

The bracelet could also help passengers find their seat on the plane. Once they sit down, smart fabric in the seating would scan the passengers vitals and produce a detailed report. Audience members briefly scoffed at the suggestion, but Grant said this information would help flight attendants know when there was a passenger with a heart condition, for example.

“We could also have a passenger with a fever, in which case they would closely monitor the vitals of the people around that person. This could have been useful in the SARS epidemic we had to control the spread of the illness,” said Grant, referring to the 2003 outbreak of the infectious disease in Toronto.

Melissa Grupen-Shemansky, CTO of FlexTech Alliance, said during her opening keynote that a lot more electronics are now directly conformed to the normal shape of operating devices such as curved displays and steering wheels. But we still have a long way to go.

“A lot of this stuff is still in cabin, not under the hood,” she said. “We need to push the envelope on the semiconductor side of things to really get that flexibility.”

But for certain applications, it’s also a matter of endurance. Kerry Doherty, senior system specialist for CMC Esterline, said his company, which specializes in instrumentation systems for military aircraft, builds technology that has to survive in the harshest environments. One of the hardest tests their equipment has to pass is a vibration test. Flexible electronics could potentially save them a lot of money when it comes to production, but Doherty questioned its ability to withstand extreme vibrations.

“Even though their flexible, once you put chips on them, how long does it last until it starts to separate from the material? And usually when you vibrate things you get two resonant frequencies. That might be a problem, too,” he explained


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Alex Coop
Alex Coop
Former Editorial Director for IT World Canada and its sister publications.

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