FAA seeks outside help, but its experts questioned battery safety in 2010
Three years ago, internal experts called for more testing of lithium-ion batteries and possible rule changes following an assessment of the emerging technology at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J. FAA headquarters has not yet acted on the concerns, and by late Jan. 24 had not publicly explained why.
“How these batteries will react in a fire situation and what type of fire hazard they pose themselves must be examined,” the FAA Fire Safety Team wrote in its January 2010 final report. “Tests must be performed to ensure the batteries provide an appropriate level of safety. Current regulatory and test requirements may need to be updated to address the hazards associated with this new technology.”
The revelation comes as FAA Administrator Michael Huerta is asking the government and aerospace industry for fresh ideas on how to solve the technical challenges of an increasingly complex aviation industry, a move that could signal a desire to retool how the agency approaches aircraft certification, based on issues emerging on the.
Barely two weeks into his five-year tenure as FAA administrator, Huerta ordered a “comprehensive review” and grounding of the 787, which the safety agency instituted on Jan. 11 and Jan. 16, respectively, due in large part to a series of battery problems. He will not speculate on when the review might be complete, or detail the process. “The FAA takes very seriously its responsibility to certify aircraft safety standards, and we're moving forward with a review of the critical systems of the787,” says Huerta. “When we have a concern, we will analyze it until we are satisfied.”
Huerta adds that the FAA must “restore the highest level of safety and create the best methods and best procedures that will service the industry.”
It is not clear whether Huerta's remarks signal unhappiness with the input and guidance the FAA already receives from myriad government-industry rulemaking and advisory groups or the agency's own technical laboratories, or whether the FAA plans to create new mechanisms for input.
“We are never going to lose sight of our respective roles, but that does not mean there is not a seat at the table for bright minds from the industry to help inform the best way of navigating complex technical issues,” Huerta said on Jan. 23 during a lunch meeting with industry officials. “Changing our culture . . . for greater collaboration is the tactic to maintaining the safest aviation system in the world.”
The question of how or if the 787's lithium-ion battery—the largest, most powerful and complex of its kind in commercial airline service—passed a comprehensive list of nine FAA-approved special conditions as part of the aircraft's certification continues to be at the heart what has become a public relations quandary for Huerta.
When issuing the Jan. 16 emergency airworthiness directive that effectively grounded the global fleet, the FAA said it would “validate that 787 batteries and the battery system on the aircraft are in compliance with the special conditions,” the de facto certification that rules take precedence over legacy regulations, given that the latter do not cover the advanced technology.
When asked if the FAA had the expertise in-house to handle complex projects like the 787 battery certification, Huerta asserted vigorously that it does.
However, he says a coalition of the finest minds throughout the entire aviation sector should be assembled “to work on understanding how these new systems work . . . and how to meet the highest safety standards.”
Ironically, the lithium-ion battery special conditions mirror guidelines crafted by an RTCA special committee—a government-industry group generally considered to comprise the sharpest minds on any particular topic.
Assembled at the request of Boeing in June 2006, special committee (SC) 211 comprised battery experts from a variety of manufacturers including GS Yuasa Corp., the provider of the 787's lithium-ion batteries.
The group worked for two years to develop “minimum operational performance standards, or MOPS, for rechargeable lithium battery systems to be used as permanently installed power sources on aircraft,” according to the group's initial charter. “Compliance with these standards is recommended as a means of assuring that the lithium battery will perform its intended function(s) safely, under conditions normally encountered in aeronautical operations.”
Headed by William Johnson, a proponent of lithium-ion batteries for military applications, and Hector Silberman, a battery expert at Boeing, the group delivered a list of consensus-based standards and the safety criteria the FAA ultimately used in the 787 battery special conditions finalized in October 2007.
Expert guidance to SC 211 came in part from the fire safety group at the Atlantic City Technical Center, where battery safety work—largely related to carriage of lithium-ion batteries as cargo—has been ongoing for years. The center assessed commercially available lithium-ion batteries—not ones specific to the 787—that could be used as primary or auxiliary power sources for an aircraft.
For more of Aviation Week's recent 787 coverage and links to documents such as the FAA's 2010 flammability assessment of lithium-ion batteries, go to AviationWeek.com/787