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Innovate of Course--But Be Daring, Too

Comments(0)Filed under: EDA, semiconductors, electronics, EDN, avionics, EDA vendors, Boeing, Tex Johnston, electronics design, Dash-80

Today (July 15) is the 59th anniversary of the first American jet passenger airliner flight. It serves as a reminder, I think, of the promise and frustration of technological innovation.

EDN reports that the Boeing 367-80--the so-called Dash 80 (pictured at right)--painted brown and yellow, took its first flight over Seattle on July 15, 1954. It was just two months after its debut.

According to EDN's Jessica MacNeil:

"The Dash 80 also set new speed records each time it flew. On March 11, 1957, it flew nonstop on a press demonstration flight from Seattle to Baltimore in 3 hours 48 minutes at an average speed of 612 mph."

The frustration

Think about this: A half century later, the travel time is no faster, on average about 5 hours across North America. What happened? Even humans have gotten faster in that stretch of time. Today's 100-meter dash world record holder, Usain Bolt, is 7 percent faster than his record-holding ancestors from 1954. 

We'd all love to get from San Francisco to New York in half the time, wouldn't we?

Well, what happened was a shifting of design priorities over that period, one that's instructive for the evolution of design automation and electronics design today.

Of course jet planes got a lot faster over that period of time, but they were restricted to military applications that demanded speed. The development of the Concorde supersonic airliner was a tipping point in the evolution of commercial aircraft. Yes, it could transit the Atlantic in 3 hours, but that faster travel time turned out not to be alluring for consumers. The Concorde became a high-end solution to a small problem and, as a result, the volume production of supersonic jets never materialized to bring down the cost.

Shifting concerns

The design priorities instead shifted to safety concerns, especially as ticket prices fell in the 1970s and more passengers began flying.

For context, consider 1929, the worst year in North America for aviation accidents: 51 fatal crashes netting out to about one for every million person-miles flown (that equates to 7,000 fatal accidents in today's numbers). Today the rate is 1 per 2 billion per-miles flown.

From 1991-99 in North America, there were 2.9 major airliner accidents per year (defined, as among things, an accident involving multiple fatalities). From 2000-10, that average fell to 2.4. In those two decades, aircraft hours flown soared by 49 percent, according to National Transportation Safety Board numbers.

This is important to remember in light of the recent Asiana airliner crash landing at San Francisco International, which claimed the lives of three passengers.

Credit electronics advances such as fly-by-wire, GPS, precision sensors and so forth with these rapid advances in airline safety. (OK, OK: A tip of the hat to the mechanical engineers as well!).

Airliner crashes used to be big news because they were unsettlingly common; today they're big news because they're astonishingly rare! You’re far more likely to die walking or riding your bike—or worst of all a motorcycle—than you are flying the friendly skies.

In the electronics industry, we've spent 50 years making things smaller and faster and creating software that speeds design, manages increasingly complex designs, and contributes to more productive design engineering teams.

But we're in, I think, a period similar to the aviation industry in the 1970s and 1980s. We've not necessarily hit certain physical limits (although we fret about that) but our priorities are different. Today, power management trumps speed; platforms and methodological creativity trump individual tools. The cloud is king; the device its servant.

Lessons from Tex

We don't quite know what the next 10 years hold, but let's resolve in our innovation and how we sell our innovation to be as daring as Tex Johnston. Who's he? He was a test pilot who showed off the Dash-80 at a Seattle air race a year after that maiden voyage. Unbeknownst to anyone, Johnston flying high above Seattle to showcase the Dash-80s speed and design, barrel-rolled the plane as thousands watched.

Was the design functional, elegant, and manufacturable? Yes. Could it fly? Yes. Was it fast? Yes.

Was it really truly safe? Johnston answered that question in no uncertain terms at altitude.

A few days later, he answered another question, when he was called on the carpet at headquarters. Boeing's CEO asked him just what he thought he was doing. 

Johnston replied, "Selling airplanes." 

Brian Fuller

Related stories:

--Q&A: Tensilica Founder Chris Rowen – Perspectives from an IP/SoC Pioneer

--The Future's in Our Hands; Let's Not Blow It



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