A Ride on United’s 787 Dreamliner

No doubt many compute cycles went into modeling and simulation during the development of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. I’m not sure many of the other Houston-bound passengers on today’s United Airlines flight were thinking about high performance computing as they walked on board, but a modern aircraft like the 787 would be virtually impossible to build without high performance computing technology. But you don’t have to know anything about supercomputers and HPC to love this new aircraft. United’s 787 Dreamliner site has a lot more information for those interested, but here are some of my first impressions.

One of the first things you notice when you walk on board are the windows, big windows, with no window shades. Years before the first 787 test aircraft ever flew, Boeing engineers modeled the structural integrity of aircraft using computer models and “built” the larger windows into the plane. The windows electrically lighten or darken at the touch of a button, meaning no traditional pull-down window shades are needed. While an individual window shade doesn’t weigh much, they all add up and many gallons of jet fuel will be saved on each flight without window shades. Sometimes it is the small things that make it matter.

The real weight saving of the 787, however, is invisible to passengers, that is, the plane’s extensive use of lightweight composite materials. Military jets, high-end mountain bikes, and sports car body components have used composite materials for many years, but the 787 is by far the largest vehicle to be built using such a high percentage of composites. Countless hours of supercomputer simulation went into designing the 787’s body, wing, and other mostly composite components to ensure not only light weight but strength and durability. On the flight into Houston we encountered several patches of turbulence and while it is a very subjective measurement, the 787 seemed to move through the bumps more fluidly than a traditional metal-bodied aircraft.

Because of the composite body, the 787 can be pressurized to a lower level and the air kept more humid than on other aircraft. So even as we cruised up to 40,000 feet to avoid the turbulence, the air pressure stayed several thousand feet lower than on a traditional airliner. While again subjective, I definitely felt I could feel the difference, especially in the humidity. I didn’t have the typical dry sinus feel that one gets after a flight. This should be a huge advantage on longer international flights.

Thanks to United’s frequent flyer program, I enjoyed an upgrade to United’s business-first cabin. United flies the Dreamliner in a two-class configuration with the business-first section broken up into two cabins of three rows each. All the seats are forward facing, and at six across the center section offers both passengers aisle access. A couple of minor but meaningful improvements for United frequent flyers, you can store a laptop bag under the front console, even during landing and takeoff, and a small fixed table under the wide-screen monitor is useful for holding odds and ends during flights.

Each business-first seat had a standard power outlet, USB port, and audio port, along with another small table and cupholder, on the side of the seat and behind your shoulder. The AC power easily handled charging both my laptop and cell phone, when the same 90 watt power supply often shorts out the power on many other aircraft under the same load.

Boeing and United clearly have set a new standard for other global airlines and aircraft manufacturers to follow with the new 787 Dreamliner. It is a great example of how HPC is improving the products we use every day and helping us become more energy efficient along the way. As the United advertisement says, you are going to love this new aircraft.

About Marc Hamilton

Marc Hamilton – Vice President, Solutions Architecture and Engineering, NVIDIA. At NVIDIA, the Visual Computing Company, Marc leads the worldwide Solutions Architecture and Engineering team, responsible for working with NVIDIA’s customers and partners to deliver the world’s best end to end solutions for professional visualization and design, high performance computing, and big data analytics. Prior to NVIDIA, Marc worked in the Hyperscale Business Unit within HP’s Enterprise Group where he led the HPC team for the Americas region. Marc spent 16 years at Sun Microsystems in HPC and other sales and marketing executive management roles. Marc also worked at TRW developing HPC applications for the US aerospace and defense industry. He has published a number of technical articles and is the author of the book, “Software Development, Building Reliable Systems”. Marc holds a BS degree in Math and Computer Science from UCLA, an MS degree in Electrical Engineering from USC, and is a graduate of the UCLA Executive Management program.
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