What Happens When Aerospace Designers Get Sensors Wrong

Modern aircraft are equipped with so many sensors that the total number is hard to quantify. There are sensors to measure fundamentals like temperature and airspeed. There are other sensors used for navigation. Still, other sensors enable an aircraft’s computer system to maintain stable flight under the worst conditions. So what happens when aerospace designers get it wrong?

It only takes one bad sensor to create a dangerous situation in the air. This is why aerospace manufacturers put so much time and energy into testing new aircraft. Before a new plane is ever cleared to fly, it has gone through years of design and testing to ensure it is completely safe.

When sensors fail, lives can be lost. And when engineers design their sensors incorrectly, failure could be completely unexpected. That makes an already bad situation worse. Is it any surprise that Boeing is now being forced to correct a major sensor issue at its own expense?

Air Force Refueling Planes

Defense News reports that Boeing has been negotiating with the U.S. Air Force for several years in an attempt to fix problems with sensors that were affecting refueling planes. The plane in question is the KC-46. Air Force officials had hoped to have the plane ready to go sometime within the next few years.

Unfortunately, sensor issues have made the in-flight fueling process a challenging task. Refueling is normally accomplished by looking out a window and guiding the fueling boom using visual cues. In the KC-46 however, the window is gone. Refueling techs rely on complex sensors and instrument readings.

It should be clear to see why the U.S. Air Force cannot afford sensor issues on the KC-46. They need flawless refueling capabilities or they cannot put the plane in the air. That leaves Boeing in a position of having to either fix the issues or stop building the plane.

Way Over Budget

Defense News also reports that Boeing has already blown through the $4.9 billion allocated for the KC-46 project. As a result, they will have to fund a complete redesign of the plane themselves. That is on top of the $3.5 billion they have already spent on cost overruns.

The lesson here is that getting sensors wrong can do as much financial damage as physical damage. In Boeing’s case, the ultimate goal is to end up with an aircraft that delivers as advertised with very little risk to life and limb. So even as they do all they can to protect U.S. Air Force pilots, their own bottom line is taking a beating.

More Complex Than They Seem

In Boeing’s defense, designing all of the sensors necessary to revolutionize mid-air plane refueling is not an easy task. Even the simplest of sensors is more complex than it seems, according to California-based Rock West Solutions. The cameras and lasers required to make the KC-46 refueling system possible are rather complicated pieces of kit.

Rock West Solutions says that aerospace sensor designs are particularly difficult because of the conditions they are exposed to during flight. Designers have to consider all sorts of things that simply do not apply on the ground. They also have less room for error.

Despite the high price tag, Boeing is expected to completely redesign the KC-46. It is expected they will eventually come up with an aircraft that the U.S. Air Force signs off on. And in the long run, they will make money once the plane is in production. But they are going to spend a lot in the interim. That is what happens when you get sensors wrong.

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