Boeing Invents: The Pursuit of Safer Air Travel

By Steve Brachmann
July 19, 2013

From U.S. Pat. App. 20130133202, for fire resistant thermoplastics.

As a leader in the development of commercial airliners, The Boeing Company of Chicago, IL, is greatly involved in improving safety systems for their aircraft. In recent days, the perception of unsafe aircraft has been hurting the airplane manufacturer.

A recent fire onboard a Boeing Dreamliner at London’s Heathrow Airport refocused concerns on the recently developed cruise liner, which was maligned with battery fire issues earlier this year. In early July, a high-profile Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco involving a Boeing 777 airliner has also troubled the company, although the investigation seems to be focusing on pilot error in that case. Still, when dealing with air transit there is zero margin for error. When errors do occur when an airplane is in use they frequently are catastrophic, so the search for safer technologies is a never ending pursuit.

Today in our Companies We Follow series, we’re taking another look at Boeing, especially taking a look at their efforts to develop even safer systems of airborne transportation. Some of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office documents we feature here highlight Boeing’s improvements to emergency systems on aircraft. One Boeing patent application would improve flame-retardant windows so that they create fewer toxic emissions during a fire. One issued patent details Boeing’s creation of a system for detecting suitable areas to land an aircraft away from an airport, in case of emergency.

Other USPTO published documents detail Boeing’s development of better safety detection systems. Two patents we take a close look at describe improvements to electrical wire inspection to detect degradation in wire insulation and a sensing circuit for detecting a properly attached seat buckle. Finally, one patent application filed by Boeing would provide a system for detecting volcanic ash within a jet engine.


Determining Suitable Areas for Off-Airport Landings
U.S. Patent No. 7689328

In-flight emergencies can cause a pilot to bring the aircraft to a landing before the plane has reached its intended destination. In these situations, a suitable landing area must be found quickly to avoid loss of life and property. Aircraft manufacturers have utilized GPS receivers to locate a nearby airport. However, this technology isn’t helpful when a suitable airport cannot be found within a reasonable distance.

The Boeing Company was issued a patent recently from the USPTO that protects a system of determining suitable areas to land an aircraft when an airport cannot be reached. This system utilizes GPS data to determine coordinates and geographic data to determine nearby areas of level grade which can provide a reasonably safe landing in an emergency. Pilots would be provided with information about the landing area’s altitude, direction, length and any possibility of animals, trees or other obstructions.

Claim 1 of this issued patent protects:

“A method for facilitating a landing of an aircraft, the method comprising: receiving flight data in the aircraft; receiving geographic data in the aircraft; and generating route data based on the flight data and the geographic data, wherein the route data provides information about attainable landing areas for the aircraft, wherein the attainable landing areas comprise one or more off-airport landing areas, wherein the flight data comprises aircraft-performance data, and wherein the aircraft-performance data comprises one or more of runway surface and length requirements, and type of runway surfaces required.”

Detecting Volcanic Ash in Jet Engine Exhaust
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130087708

Volcanic ash is a particular harmful substance that airplanes sometimes encounter. Unlike most clouds, which are composed of water vapor, the particles making up volcanic ash include jagged bits of rock and glass. If ash gets into the plane’s air supply, breathing in ash can greatly harm passengers and crew. It can also wear out many working components of a jet and even cause engine failure by blocking airways and damaging parts.

This Boeing patent application has been filed with the USPTO to protect an onboard system of detecting the presence of volcanic ash within a jet engine. An infrared sensor would be installed to scan jet engine exhaust, where ash particulate is heated and easily detected by IR sensors. This system aims to improve the ability of pilots to divert course during times of low visibility, such as nighttime or while traveling through cloud vapor, when ash is difficult to see.

As Claim 1 states, Boeing has devised a system of:

“A method for detecting volcanic ash embedded in a water vapor cloud, comprising the following steps: measuring an intensity of infrared radiation emissions of a jet engine exhaust at or near a spectral peak wavelength for the jet engine exhaust; and generating a detection signal indicating the presence of volcanic ash in the jet engine exhaust when an the intensity of infrared radiation emissions at or near the a spectral peak wavelength exceeds a threshold.”


Fire Resistance for Optically Transparent Thermoplastics
U.S. Patent Application No. 20130133202

The small enclosed spaces of an airplane’s cabin or cockpit make fire safety a great concern. Constructing a plane from flame-retardant materials can help prevent against a fire breaking out and engulfing a large portion of the plane. Aircraft windows, for example, are manufactured with layers of phosphorus and halogenated organic compounds, which maintain transparency while insulating other materials against fire consumption. However, if brought into contact with a fire, these materials will produce corrosive smoke that is harmful to whoever breathes it in.


Boeing is seeking to protect a new method of constructing aircraft windows to reduce toxic emissions while also improving visibility. This new design utilizes a transparent matrix composed of fire-retardant nanoparticles. These nanoparticles can include individual fibers of polycarbonate, polyvinyl fluoride or transparent epoxy resin. The small size of these fibers helps prevent against the opacity and poor visibility that many current aircraft windows exhibit.

Claim 1 of this patent application would give Boeing the right to protect:

“A method of manufacturing an aircraft, comprising: forming a fuselage having an opening; forming a fire-retardant window adapted to be placed within the opening by: providing a transparent matrix; integrating a plurality of fire-retardant nanoparticles, each having a diameter less than the wavelength of visible light, within the transparent matrix; and securing the fire-retardant window within the opening in the fuselage.”


Methods and Systems for Quantifying Degradation of Wiring Insulation
U.S. Patent No. 8446154

Electrical wiring on an aircraft is typically insulated with a layer of non-reactive polymers that maintain the functional ability of the electrical system. However, this insulation degrades with time, exposing the wiring and making the system susceptible to sparking and short circuits. Wire insulation testing devices exist, but they usually require the removal of all wiring and damaging of the insulation while testing for degradation.

The USPTO has issued a patent to Boeing that protects a system of testing an electrical wire for insulation degradation through a clamp that is designed to detect wire capacitance, or the electrical charge stored by the body. The clamp includes a channel for the wire to rest between the jaws, which include a number of plates. These plates can detect the wire’s capacitance as well as any electrical dissipation escaping through insulation degradation.

As Claim 1 explains, Boeing has recently earned the right to protect:

“A system for the measurement of degradation of electrical wire insulation quality, said system comprising: a clamping device for engaging an electrical wire to be tested for insulation degradation, said clamping device comprising: a first jaw; a second jaw; and a channel formed between said first and second jaws for placement of the electrical wire; a plurality of plates placed proximate said channel, said plurality of plates electrically connected to generate a capacitance and placed proximate the channel such that insulation on the electrical wire provides a portion of a dielectric for the generated capacitance, said plurality of plates comprising: a first set of plates on said first jaw, said first set of plates including an alternating arrangement of plates configured to be held at a first potential and plates configured to be held at a second potential different than the first potential; and a second set of plates on said second jaw, said second set of plates including an alternating arrangement of plates configured to be held at the first potential and plates configured to be held at the second potential; and a measurement device operatively attached to said plurality of plates such that said measurement device is configured to indicate an amount of degradation associated with the wire insulation based on at least one of a measured capacitance and a dissipation factor.”

Seat Buckle Configured for Security and Safety and Associated Methods
U.S. Patent No. 8427294

Seat buckles are important safety implements that can protect passengers during turbulent flight, but they must be secured correctly to work. Prior to a flight, aircraft attendants will walk down the aisles in passenger cabins to ensure that seat buckles have been secured properly. However, visual inspection can be hindered if a passenger is wearing bulky clothing or has a blanket. Also, human error might cause an attendant to consider a seat buckle attached even if it isn’t properly secured.

This patent, issued to Boeing by the USPTO, describes a system for detecting that a seat buckle has been properly attached to reduce reliance on an attendant’s manual inspection of seat buckles. A sensor and transmitter are installed on a first part of a seat buckle. The sensor detects when a secure attachment has been made with the other part of the seat buckle. The transmitter sends a signal to a light display indicating that a secure attachment has been made.

Claim 1 of this patent details Boeing’s creation of:

“A system for determining if a first portion of a seat belt is attached to a second portion of a seat belt, said system comprising: a first seat belt portion comprising a first seat buckle member comprising a magnet slidably mounted therein; a second seat belt portion comprising a second seat buckle member, said second seat buckle member configured to engage said first seat buckle member in a releasable attachment, said magnet configured to slide within said first seat buckle member when said second seat buckle member contacts said magnet; a sensing element located within said first seat buckle member, sliding of said magnet further configured to cause said sensing element to change state as said second seat buckle member becomes properly engaged with said first seat buckle member and cause said sensing element to change state as said second seat buckle member properly disengages from said first seat buckle member, said sensing element configured to output signals upon changing state, the change in state corresponding to one or both of attachment and non-attachment between said first seat buckle member and said second seat buckle member; a transmitter located within said first seat buckle member and configured to receive the signals from said sensing element, said transmitter further configured to transmit unique identification information and data corresponding to the signals received from said sensing element, the unique identification information corresponding with a location of the seat belt; and a display unit configured to receive the unique identification information and data from said transmitter, said display unit further configured to provide a display indicative of an attachment status between said first seat buckle member and said second seat buckle member.”


The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun,,, Motley Fool and Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of Read more.

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