Will MEA Solve Thermal Issues in Aircraft Power Distribution?

The biggest challenge for aircraft power distribution engineers today is finding solutions to the problem of increased electronic and mechanical needs of an aircraft. One of the most exciting areas of innovation in the aerospace industry today is shown in the advancing technologies in MEA, or More Electronic Aircraft.

MEA covers a broad range of technologies that all aim to eliminate the reliance on hydraulic and pneumatic mechanical solutions in favor of electronically controlled components, and redesigned aircraft power distribution.

The biggest immediate advantage for aircraft that incorporate MEA design is increased efficiency. This can be achieved by reducing components and serviceable parts, and potentially reducing the overall weight of an aircraft. The solutions that are under development address the problems of increased aircraft power distribution and generation, while aiming to keep weight increases low.

While options exist to generate sufficient electrical power for aircraft power distribution, weight has been a major problem with some of the earliest solutions.  Systems where solid oxide fuel cells are used to store generated power add considerable weight to an aircraft.

Because energy storage is not feasible for aircraft power distribution needs, aerospace manufacturers and airline operators need to find ways of generating total energy demands in real time without offsetting the weight savings that are made by moving to electronic components.

MEA technologies solve Aircraft Power Distribution needs?

In the aid of saving weight while generating complete power needs for an aircraft’s avionics, cabin pressure, entertainment needs, and actuation systems, new technologies are being actively pursued by companies like Boeing, Airbus, and Safran. One of these technologies includes a new kind of aircraft power distribution via a power generation method that harvests energy more efficiently than conventional turboprop engines.

By adding two generators to each engine, a four engine aircraft could generate power for all of its current needs, as well as providing additional aircraft power distribution to be used in critical mechanisms like landing gear and flaps, as well as all other electrical systems of the plane.

By including harvesters at both the low pressure and high pressure spool points of the engine, twice the power can be generated over traditional energy harvest methods.  As solutions like this become commercialized we will see a new kind of aircraft that relies heavily on the principles of MEA to satisfy aircraft power distribution demands.

Consider that landing gear and braking systems relied on electrical aircraft power distribution rather than hydraulics, or that all on board entertainment systems were powered by electricity harnessed directly from the engine.

Aircraft are able to shed considerable weight just by reducing the mechanical parts, hydraulic lines, fluid reservoirs, and other heavy components. Electrical wiring saves space, and electrical motors used to control mechanical movements make weight and space savings over hydraulic solutions.

MEA makes sense in other areas of aircraft power distribution too. Many components can share resources which again saves space, weight, and increases serviceability. Shared computer resources can be used to centrally control electro-mechanical systems as well as avionics, entertainment, and comfort functions in commercial aircraft.  Electrical systems that rely on computer controlled hardware are more serviceable and require less safety precautions which reduces overhead and work time in aircraft power distribution.

MEA as the main principle behind aircraft power distribution is the future of aviation, and the applications are not just in the commercial sector. Military aircraft already rely on electronic components for critical function. The benefits of reduced weight, operating cost, and simpler service regimens are just a few of the reasons why MEA design is being actively pursued by defense contractors and national governments.

MEA raises Issues regarding Aircraft Power Distribution

Although MEA is a solution to a problem, it raises some of its own issues too. The aforementioned power generation is one of them, and thermal issues are also a major concern in MEA design. The increased electricity generation and the electrical components themselves generate heat that exceeds levels typical of pneumatic and hydraulic systems. The challenge for aircraft power distribution engineers at this stage is finding ways of dissipating heat and incorporating alternative heat sinks for modern aircraft design.

While fuel can serve as an effective heat sink, fuel load is not evenly distributed throughout flight, while electrical generation remains mostly constant. Ambient air is also not an effective heat sink, even though the extremely cold air at high altitude is less than half as dense as air at sea level. The need for air inlets and scoops can also increase drag and this loss off aerodynamic efficiency goes against the principles of efficient flight, and is especially unacceptable for military use.

So while MEA is a necessity in aircraft design moving forward, aircraft power distribution engineers still face many challenges to reach the ultimate goal of an aircraft that eliminates traditional control methods of actuation and other necessary mechanical functions.

Is your business model prepared for revolutions in MEA design, and how can you, along with the aerospace industry as a whole face the challenges of a future where aviation’s reliance on electrical power will only grow?

Problems with aircraft power distribution, power generation and thermal management will be a deciding factor as to how fast, and how comprehensively we will incorporate MEA principles as a collective industry.

About Craig Hufford

Managing Partner | Retained Executive Search Consultant with 30+ years recruiting senior executives and functional leaders for Aerospace and Aviation in power electronics, motor drives / controls, aircraft electrical power, in-seat IFEC and CMS.

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