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Boeing tests new technologies to help fight coronavirus on planes

Boeing's ecoDemonstrator program puts a variety of innovations through the paces. This year Boeing temporarily outfitted a new Etihad Airways plane with new tech.

SEATTLE — Boeing is continuing to research new technologies despite the extensive economic damage wrought by COVID-19 on the aviation industry.

In the next few days, a brand new 787-10 will leave Boeing Field in Seattle for the company’s private airport in the quiet emptiness of Glasgow, Montana.

The plane is called an ecoDemonstrator, which has been temporarily modified to try out new technologies. Since 2012, this Boeing program has tested hundreds of new technologies in partnership with different airlines.

This airplane was outfitted in partnership with its new owner, Etihad Airways. Other partners include NASA and aviation company Safran Landing Systems, which will test multiple new technologies, including two ways to kill COVID-19 virus on surfaces inside the plane.

One of those is a wand that emits germ-killing ultraviolet light. The head of the wand designed to be small enough to move around tight spaces in cockpits, as well as other locations around the cabin.

The other new sanitation technology is a germ-killing coating inside the cabin. The test will see how well the coating holds up to foot traffic and other wear-and-tear, and how long it is effective in killing viruses and bacteria.

“There’s a real commitment by the Boeing company to continue to look at technology,” said Doug Christensen, a veteran of the program and its chief Technical Fellow. “To make our planes quieter, cleaner and more sustainable.”

Economic pressure during the COVID-19 downturn has caused some layoffs and early retirements in the program. But Christensen said plans are in place for next year’s ecoDemonstrator, as well as the year after that.

The ecoDemonstrator program usually pairs Boeing up with one of its airline customers to use a jet as a platform for testing. In past years, that testing has involved flying the world’s biggest jet engines on 100% sustainable biofuel. Other tested technology includes warning systems to give enough time for passengers and crews to get belted into their seats before flying into heavy turbulence.

In addition to the sanitation technologies, this year’s ecoDemonstrator will try and better understand the noise that comes off the body of the airplane, from landing gear, flaps, engine cowlings and other parts, and how that interacts with the engines themselves.

The plane is covered with 214 strategically placed microphones. Boeing will do a series of tests in and out of the company’s Montana airport which has 1,000 microphones spread out on the ground.

French aviation technology company Safran Landing Systems will bolt specialized devices to 787-10's landing gear to also try and cut down on noise.

Another new technology on the flight deck will detect bad weather and congestion along the route of the plane and suggest alternative routings, which would enhance safety and help with on-time landings and fuel saving.