Boeing Patents Spacecraft Ground Control Communication System

By Steve Brachmann
December 27, 2014

The Boeing Company (NYSE: BA) of Chicago, IL, is a multinational corporation focused on the development and manufacture of airplanes, rockets, satellites and a variety of other aircraft and spacecraft. Changes to the company’s production processes for cargo planes and other aerospace work led to Boeing’s recent announcement that 561 employees will be laid off from three of the company’s facilities in southern California. Boeing executives are confident that financing for new aircraft deliveries will continue to rise towards $124 billion during 2015, double the value of new deliveries experienced in 2010. Boeing earns a fair amount of business through contracts with the American military, and the most recent omnibus bill proposed by Congress includes $1.46 billion for the purchase of 15 EA-18G electronic attack jets from Boeing.

The innovations in flight technologies from Boeing are fascinating to explore whenever we return with our Companies We Follow series. Patent applications filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show a great amount of recent focus on environmentally friendly inventions, including one hybrid fuel airplane configuration that improves the use of high-efficiency cryogenic fuels. Augmented reality platforms for improving various engineering and manufacturing processes are discussed below. We were also intrigued by a system developed to encourage gray water evaporation from airplane lavatories.

Boeing’s strong intellectual property portfolio has added some very unique and interesting technologies over just the past few weeks. Some of the patents we share with our readers today showcase Boeing’s development in craft other than airplanes, including airships and spacecraft. A few other patents protect improved systems and tools for component repair, including a barcode system that helps a technician quickly retrieve information specific to an individual component. We also explore a patent protecting a seat indicator system which is designed to help a passenger return to the correct seat after using the bathroom.

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Boeing’s Patent Applications: From Energy Efficient Airplanes to Virtual Reality Platforms

Boeing’s current innovations are supported nearly a century of the corporation’s activities in the flight industry as well as the engineering feats developed by many of the companies acquired by the company over the years, which includes major names in aviation engineering such as Douglas Aircraft, McDonnell Aircraft and Hughes Space and Communications. In May of this year, current Boeing CEO Jim McNerney made comments at the company’s annual investors meeting in Seattle that Boeing would seek to emulate Apple’s example in innovation by pursuing incremental advances in innovation, cutting costs from “moon shot” R&D projects that have been unable to produce new planes effectively in recent years. Some current projects are aimed at developing aircraft utilizing a wide array of environmentally-friendly technologies. For instance, the ecoDemonstrator 787 being tested by Boeing includes about 25 “green” technologies for increased landing efficiency, real-time turbulence reporting and others designed to reduce fuel use and carbon emissions by 20 percent when compared to similar models. Boeing is also part of a partnership with Netherlands-based aviation innovation firm SkyNRG to create sustainable aviation biofuels from the seeds of nicotine-free tobacco plants being cultivated in South Africa.

Innovations designed to improve the operating efficiency of airplanes through a variety of means are featured in a couple of patents that wanted to share with our readers today. U.S. Patent Application No. 20140339367, titled Efficient Low Carbon Emission Airplane Integrating Jet Fuel and Cryogenic Fuel Systems, would protect a hybrid fuel airplane with an airplane fuel system configured with at least one cryogenic fuel tank located in the airplane body and a jet fuel tank located within an aircraft’s wing. The airplane claimed by this patent application would enable the craft to capitalize on the low emissions, low cost and high energy density of cryogenic fuels while reducing shortcomings in airplane drag created by the large volume tanks needed to store those fuels.

From U.S. Patent Application No. 20140339367, titled “Efficient Low Carbon Emission Airplane Integrating Jet Fuel and Cryogenic Fuel Systems.”

Increased energy efficiency while operating an aircraft engine is the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140343759, which is titled Methods and Systems for Aircraft Guidance. It claims a method of guiding an aircraft which involves the in-flight determination of any deviations between the initial predicted flight trajectory and a measured current flight trajectory to generate a revised speed command that reduces the deviation. This system is designed to increase engine efficiency by reducing the amount of uncertainty regarding deviations between an estimated time of arrival (ETA) and a required time of arrival (RTA) which increases as a plane travels further away from a waypoint where current trajectory can be measured.

Virtual reality technologies have been featured in our recent CWF profiles of Disney and Microsoft, which makes sense given the focus of those companies on immersive video gaming and entertainment experiences. However, we were intrigued to see Boeing with a fair amount of R&D activity in the same sector reflected by some recently filed patent applications. Ubiquitous natural user (UNU) systems providing a user interface for augmented reality (AR) glasses or other personal displays are the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140359540, which is titled Ubiquitous Natural User System for Human-Machine Interaction. The UNU system claimed by this patent application includes a number of sensors for measuring the motion of a user during performance of a task in an environment designed to accept distinct gestures from a user, and a front-end system configured to identify the gesture and communicate that gesture as an input to an electronic resource. This patent application focuses on the use of the front-end system in a UNU to support gesture-based commands for workers performing tasks to provide them with electronic resources, such as the ability to communicate with other workers in similar environments. Techniques performed by the sensors used within UNU systems are discussed by U.S. Patent Application No. 20140354528, filed under the title Ubiquitous Natural User System. The patent application would protect a UNU system comprised of multiple sensors that detect a user, a user environment or a user interaction, including one sensor that scans a three-dimensional environment to measure points on a surface of an object in an environment. The use of the three-dimensional scanning sensor is utilized to construct better 3D models of an environment to support the use of UNU systems in various production processes of aircraft engineering.

Improvements to materials used in airplane manufacturing processes are also being sought by this company, which we saw evidenced in the filing of U.S. Patent Application No. 20140356531, filed under the title Composite Hat Stiffener. The patent application claims a hat stiffener with a hat cap of a certain length with a plurality of flanges installed along the hat cap length and a hat web with multiple slopes running across the hat cap length. This improved configuration for a hat stiffener, used to transfer forces imparted on an airplane’s skin to the structural frame, providing more torsional rigidity and buckling resistance in many aircraft structures. Better restroom facilities on airplanes are featured in U.S. Patent Application No. 20140353855, titled Evaporative System for Removing Water from an Aircraft Lavatory and or Galley Floor. This invention is intended to overcome shortcomings associated with traditional plumbing systems on aircraft that limit the number of lavatories which can be installed or require collection of grey and black water in a single tank. The patent application claims a system for removing gray water from a lavatory or galley area which utilizes a container positioned in the floor of a lavatory or galley area, a conduit in flow communication with the container and a ventilation system configured to generate an air flow in the conduit to evaporate gray water from the container.

There were other fuel innovations being pursued in recent months by Boeing other than the high-efficiency cryogenic fuel tank system discussed above. U.S. Patent Application No. 20140331743, entitled Systems and Methods for Testing Ignition Properties of Particles, would protect a system designed to test the risk of fuel fumes combusting when certain particles are present in a gas. The method for testing the ignition properties of particles that would be protected includes the generation of a flow of gas around a particle that is fixed in space relative to the flow of gas, heating the particle to a temperature and collecting data about the particle and the flow of gas. This inventive system is designed to provide a controlled environment enabling researchers to study and understand the ignition thresholds of gases in response to events like lightning strikes when those gases contain particles.

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Issued Patents of Note: Spacecraft Ground Control to Passenger Seat Location

The patent portfolio of Boeing has been very strong in recent years as a result of strong investment in research and development. Boeing was one of 33 American companies to make the list of the 2014 Top 100 Innovators list recently published by Thomson Reuters’ Intellectual Property Solutions. In 2013, Boeing was 50th worldwide in terms of obtaining U.S. patent grants, earning 798 patents from the USPTO that year. In May of this year, Gary Georgeson became the first engineer at Boeing to eclipse 100 patented inventions developed while working for the company.

From U.S. Patent No. 8905353, titled “Bi-Convex Airship.”

Boeing is involved with the design of many craft other than commercial airliners. Airships which achieve lighter-than-air transport through buoyancy are protected by U.S. Patent No. 8905353, issued under the title Bi-Convex Airship. The airship claimed by this patent includes a shell having a lateral vertical cross-section bi-convex shape which involves a substantially planar structure configured to resist tension forces of a membrane, and a controller which controls the temperature of air in an air storage system to control airship buoyancy without using aerodynamic lift or a vertical thrust component. This invention is intended to result in an airship which can fly faster while overcoming shortcomings of fuel use, which adds weight, or parasite drag, which increases as an airship’s speed increases. Techniques that enable better communication with spacecraft are disclosed by U.S. Patent No. 8908591, entitled Wireless Access and Networking System and Method for Spacecraft. The patent protects a method for spacecraft wireless access and networking which involves the determination of the position of an orbiting spacecraft, selecting a wireless access point of a terrestrial wireless communication network based on the spacecraft’s position, pointing the spacecraft’s antenna towards the wireless access point and establishing communication. This innovation in ground-to-space communication is designed to reduce the costs associated with constructing a ground infrastructure for dedicated command and control by taking advantage of the presence of wireless networks.

It’s not expected that many readers will enjoy the cinematic pun but Boeing has patented snakes on a plane. U.S. Patent No. 8899359, which is titled Locomotion System for Robotic Snake, claims a method for traversing an area under a flexible object with a serpentine body including a plurality of portions and moving the serpentine body by rotating wheels coupled to each portion to build a friction force that helps the serpentine body maintain a position relative to a flexible object. This technology is designed to improve the use of robotic snakes for inspecting components without being obstructed by flexible objects such as a fuel bladder or an insulation blanket. Technological systems that enable quicker maintenance procedures are discussed within U.S. Patent No. 8887993, entitled Barcode Access to Electronic Resources for Complex System Parts. This innovation is intended to provide an electronic platform for system-related documents that contain information on complex systems, such as an aircraft, while reducing the time consuming nature of finding specific information from those documents. The patent protects a system for access to system-related resources for complex-system parts which utilizes a barcode reader for scanning a barcode located on a part and a front-end engine coupled to the barcode reader which generates a portal identifying the part and provides navigable links which are connected to resources for that part.

From U.S. Patent No. 8902254, titled “Portable Augmented Reality.”

Boeing’s focus on developing virtual and augmented reality systems has recently paid off through the issue of U.S. Patent No. 8902254, issued under the title Portable Augmented Reality. The patent protects an apparatus that provides an augmented reality view of an object which includes a sensor system for retrieving physical data of an object and a processor unit that generates a multi-dimensional representation of an object and transmits that representation to a hand-held device. The system of this invention enables an augmented reality platform which can help repair technicians identify a part in a complex system and potential repair scenarios; it seems as though this system could be implemented along with the barcode innovation mentioned above.

From U.S. Patent No. 8896496, titled “Seat Location System.”

To close our look at Boeing’s recent innovations, we’ll check out a patent protecting an intriguing system that helps passengers find their seat more easily. U.S. Patent No. 8896496, issued under the title Seat Location System, claims an apparatus that provides an indicator in a passenger cabin that displays a unique identifier for a passenger assigned to a seat and a controller that activates the indicator when a passenger leaves his or her seat. This invention is intended to reduce a passenger’s difficulty in finding an assigned seat, for instance when returning from a bathroom, and the embarrassment incurred by sitting in another person’s assigned seat.

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, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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There are currently 1 Comment comments.

  1. Benny December 28, 2014 8:25 am

    Given that Boeings’ biggest competitor in the aerospace industry is in Europe, (Airbus), I don’t see US patents providing much financial protection for aircraft related IP. Are these patent applications also filed in the EU?