Solving The Flying Thermos Problem


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Solving The Flying Thermos Problem

By Steve Hall

May 1, 2012 - Last spring, GE broke ground on a $50 million aviation research center at the University of Dayton in Ohio. When finished next year, the center’s 200 engineers, technologists, and researchers will work on advanced electric power systems for next generation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as “drones,” including classified UAVs as large as a fighter jet. 

GE Aviation, which is spending another $17 million to upgrade other Dayton plants, is already a big player in the UAV market. For example, GE’s power systems work inside UAVs like the Global Hawk, and the X-45, and X-47 drone prototypes.  

“These UAVs and are the next generation of fighter and reconnaissance aircraft,” says Vic Bonneau, president of the Electrical Power Systems unit at GE Aviation. “At GE, we are being very aggressive at trying to invest in the kinds of technologies that will solve large problems for our customers 10 years from now.” 

GE’s American-made high-tech electrical generators and power distribution systems help keep the Global Hawk surveillance UAV aloft for many hours and as high as 60,000 feet. Within the next year, the Federal Aviation Administration will designate six sites across the U.S. as future flight testing centers for UAVs. GE’s new R&D center in Dayton will help Ohio bolster its bid. 

One such problem is heat. The Global Hawk, for example, has flown war reconnaissance missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but also after Haiti’s devastating earthquake. More than half of the aircraft is built from lightweight, high-strength composite materials. But the composites, which are made from special resins, also make the inside of the UAV very hot. “They are like flying thermos bottles because of the composites,” Bonneau says. 

Bonneau and his team solved the heat problem by building electronic systems from materials like silicon carbide, developed at GE Global Research, that can work at temperatures twice as high as the boiling point for water. The new Dayton R&D center will help Bonneau build sophisticated computer models that can simulate conditions inside the UAV and test new technologies. “We can try new things and try new ways to operate to use less fuel and be more efficient,” Bonneau says. 

The use of UAVs is growing rapidly in both military and commercial aviation. Teal Group Corp. predicts that the $6.6 billion global UAV market will double over the next decade. Law enforcement may soon fly drones in domestic airspace, but they also find use in agriculture, traffic control, firefighting, scientific research, and during humanitarian missions. But Bonneau says his research will reach beyond drones and “result in breakthroughs for the commercial space” as well. GE customers like Boeing, Airbus, Embraer or Gulfstream are already building composite airplanes. Bonneau said “They are facing the same kinds of challenges as the military.” 


During a keynote address on Monday at the Dayton Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting Lorraine Bolsinger, president and CEO of GE Aviation Systems said “GE Aviation will continue to grow its Dayton presence in a dramatic way.” In the past five years, GE Aviation has added 400 jobs at its three Dayton plants, initiated construction of a new R&D center at the University of Dayton, and hopes the GE commitment to the region will bolster efforts by Ohio leaders to make Greater Dayton a test-flight hub for future unmanned aircraft.  

“GE plans to grow and attract talent to Dayton from around the world,” said Lorraine Bolsinger. “We are investing $17 million in capital improvements for our Dayton facilities and another $50 million in our new Electrical Power Integrated Systems R & D center that will be operational next year.”  The new R&D center will be the intellectual heart and soul of GE’s electrical power business with potentially 150 – 200 researchers in the next five years depending on future programs.  

The R & D center will position GE to pursue business for the next generation of planes, many of which will be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). GE is a big player in this emerging market, providing electrical power and distribution for such UAVs as the Global Hawk, a surveillance plane used in Afghanistan. The use of UAVs is growing rapidly in both military and commercial aviation. The Teal Group predicts the annual $6 billion spend in UAVs worldwide will nearly double in the next decade.  

Within the next year, the Federal Aviation Administration will designate six sites across the U.S. as future flight testing centers for UAVs. Ohio is engaged in this important competition with at least 22 other states. “This will be hotly contested and will have long-term implications for Ohio,” commented Bolsinger. “We hope that GE’s presence in Dayton will play a positive role in Ohio’s effort to become a future hub for UAV test activity.”  

Bolsinger continued, “This is an opportunity to establish an enduring relationship between the FAA, Wright-Patterson, NASA and Ohio aerospace. Let’s make sure Ohio is part of the next exciting chapter in aviation history.” GE has a sizable footprint in Ohio with 22 locations and 15,000 employees across several divisions – including the Aviation headquarters near Cincinnati – and the Lighting headquarters in Cleveland. GE employs 2,600 workers in the Dayton area – including three Aviation sites – and a large credit card operation in Kettering. An economic study recently commissioned by GE concluded that 1 out of every 41 dollars in the Ohio economy is driven by GE activity. GE generates $11.2 billion annually from their payroll and through purchases with Ohio suppliers. 

GE is now Ohio’s largest exporter with GE Aviation operating 6 major facilities in Ohio with more than 9,000 employees. GE has increased employment in the state by 7% in the past two years. Annual payroll in Ohio is $750 million and they spend $1.2 billion annually with more than 1,000 Ohio suppliers.

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