News Round-up No. 1

Having seen many fireworks this weekend in the cold autumnal winds, nothing warms my heart more than finding some engineering stories from far and wide. First week doing a round-up, and there were three stories that caught my attention. As I said before, I will post sources at the end of the post, and where I browse to find my stories are in the sidebar.

China J-20 fighter jet showcased to the Public

In the Guangdong province of China, at the Zhuhai air show this week two of China’s newest fighter jets the J-20 took to the skies for a 60 second fly by. This was the first time the plane had been seen by the public, previously it had only been seen by bloggers. President Xi Jinping wants to toughen up and modernise China’s military, so that it can be more assertive in its own affairs, especially currently as there is increasing tensions in the South China sea.

The J-20 has been in development since the 1990s, and only started testing in 2011. It is expected to be operational by 2018. There are currently 46 different planes currently operational in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, with 5 of them being the predecessors of the J-20, the J-7, J-8, J-10, J-11, and the J-16. These are all fighter jets, and some have other roles alongside this, but what is most interesting is that these planes all have a Russian influence, which could be as a result  from the two countries long standing co-operation with each other.

The J-7 was more or less a reverse engineered MiG-21, which was done due to the Russians sending MiG-21s to China in order to continue production, but could not be completed due to technical documents not being complete and parts not being able to be used. Whilst the J-10 was being made, the Russian Siberian Aeronautical Research Institute (SibNIA) confirmed that it was helping the Chinese complete this model in response to the MiG-29 being put into service by the Russians, and the F-15 and F-16 already in service by the Americans. For the J-8, the Chinese failed to gain cooperation from the Americans to help solve technical problems, so they turned to Russia and Israel to help them. This plane helped boost the People’s Liberation Army Air Force into the same league as the Russians with their MiG-29s, which had already been in production for some time. The J-11 was initially going to be based on the MiG-19, which at that time, was still in service, but powered by the British Rolls-Royce Spey 512 engine. This was abandoned due to the difficulty of getting these engines. The J-11 was finally created in 1995 as a Chinese version of the Su-27SK, and were provided with Russian kits in order to build these jets, but the jets would have to be outfitted with Russian avionics, radars and engines, however production halted after around 100 were built in 2004, and a superior J-11 was revealed, the J-11B. This had Chinese material modifications and upgrades to the airframe, as well as now having Chinese avionics, radar and weaponry. The J-16 is the most modern fighter in China’s air force, and was based in the J-11B, with modifications from the Russians Su-30MKK that was sold to China in 2000.

So what does this mean for the rest of the worlds Air Force? From looking at pictures, the J-20 definitely resembles the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, which shows that China has certainly made significant leaps forward in terms of stealth technology and fighter jet technology in general. For me personally, this is definitely a show of force to the world that China is advancing its military, and that it feels that it now has the firepower to take on and influence conflicts that are going on, and this is no coincidence that this has gone on at the same time as South China Sea tensions are rising. Meanwhile, the F-35 has a great many problems on its own, but this will be in a separate post.

Chengdu J-20


F-22 Raptor


MIT and NASA flexible wing; Is it the future of aviation?

MIT, UCSC, and NASA have totally rebuilt the conventional wing, and have instead replaced it with an ‘array of tiny, lightweight, structural pieces’ called ‘digital materials’. The individual pieces are strong and stiff, however they can be arranged by robots to resemble a skin, or feathers, by overlapping many pieces over one another, while still keeping a singular, aerodynamic surface. This build up of small pieces creates a combination of strength, light weight, flexibility, and greatly simplifies the manufacturing process, as it can be automated, and does not require parts to be built in advance and assembled. This also cuts down on manufacture time, as well as repair. If one part fails, surely it just can be disassembled, the faulty part replaced, and then rebuilt? Here is the wing in action.


While initial tests have been promising, I am still skeptical. If some parts fail, surely this might render the whole side of the wing useless? The fundamental principal of this wing is that all of the parts work in tandem to morph the wing to its required shape, but if parts are damaged, say towards the middle of the wing, does this mean that the whole wing loses functionality?  Or if there is damage to the edges of the wing, does this mean that the wing cannot curve to allow the plane to turn, and so it has to instead stay on its heading, only being able to ascend and descend? While I agree this is an amazing feat, I think that work should still be undertaken to try and iron out these problems.


New approaches for managing space traffic

For years, the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Centre, or JSpOC has monitored each and every satellite in the sky, and provided warnings of potential collisions between satellites, and government and commercial satellite operators have listened to every piece of advice. The US Air Force had the resources to do this, and it was in their interest to do this, as it would stop the creation of space debris which would have to be avoided when trying to put a satellite in orbit. Now though, the Pentagon has said that it no longer wants the responsibility of issuing warnings about space collisions. George Nield has been quoted saying “Our nation’s senior military leadership has been very clear. They believe the Department of Defense needs to be focusing its time and resources on national security challenges in space: being space warriors, if you will, rather than space traffic cops,” Here he is saying that the Department of Defence doesn’t want to have to monitor all of space in order to prevent collisions, it only wants to focus on the operations of its own aircraft, and operations which will help in tackling National Security worries.

George Nield is the associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, and his company have made it clear that they would be happy to take on this role. In September, the Department of Transportation, the Department which runs the FAA, delivered a report to congress which concluded that the FAA would be more than capable to take on the role that JSpOC currently has. However the takeover would not be total at the start. The FAA would have to co-operate with the Department of Defence in order to come up with a plan that would seamlessly transition the roles between departments.

Nield will require three things to get the operation up and running. Firstly he would need explicit authority from congress, likely through legislation, in order to handle what JSpOC handles at the moment. The second would be necessary resources provided for by the government in the form of monitoring equipment and workforce, in order to have the same impact as the Department of Defence. The third would be immunity from lawsuits, which the Pentagon already has, so that if a crash does indeed occur, then the US Government is not liable, and that they are only advisors, they do not make these crashes happen.

Personally, I do think that there are pros and cons to this changeover. In terms of cons, the Department of Defence has handled this since 1996, and that is 20 years of experience under JSpOC’s belt. This is the kind of stuff which can’t be taught in training days. These are experiences which cannot be recreated or taught, this is just instinct which has been cultivated for decades. Alongside this, JSpOC is surely a million-dollar operation, this kind of transition isn’t going to happen overnight. It could take weeks or months in order to totally transition between the departments, and even then the Department of Defence will inevitably still have influence over the operations of  military satellites, while the FAA handles civilian satellites. In terms of positives, the above three requirements set out by Nield are already pending, and planning is already underway for such a huge transition, and an ‘industry day’ is planned in order to bring together the FAA, the Department of Defence and other experts to talk about how such a transition would take place. I do believe this is good because it will be beneficial for each party to talk about how they want the changeover to go, and an agreement can be reached, however this agreement could take a while to formulate. However Nield’s comment does make sense to me. Surely resources within the Department of Defence should be allocated to affairs which are directly influenced by them, such as military operations. They shouldn’t really concern themselves with small civilian satellites that serve no real purpose to them, they can instead focus on keeping the space above the US safe, instead of worrying about the space over the Pacific, for example.


Phew! What a first post! I think I did ok for the first round-up, if anyone has got any comments or suggestions, put them in the comments, or send me an email. Sources for everything will be down below. Until next time!



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