Sci-fi enters the real world

posted on 11th June 2018

Cabin design had not changed much in 50 years – until Portugal’s LIFE consortium set to work

LIFE, a futuristic idea of how executive aircraft cabins may one day look, won the Visionary Concepts category in the Crystal Cabin Awards presented during the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg in March.

The five-way Portuguese consortium behind LIFE – an acronym for Lighter, Integrated, eco-Friendly and Efficient – first unveiled a mock-up of its cabin at last year’s Paris Air Show. Some of the ideas seem to belong on the wilder shores of science fiction, but José Rui Marcelino, design manager at the Almadesign consultancy which leads the project, says the group has identified four areas with a high “technological readiness level” (TRL) that could become commercial reality within two years.

The mock-up showed how panels and coatings, lighting and ventilation systems, seats and galleys could evolve, but the most striking innovation was the Sphere, conceived as a private “cocoon” for work or relaxation.

“Why do you have to sit in a square room or work at a desk when travelling? All you need is a place to work. Screens for example won’t be as they are today – they will just be transparent surfaces,” Marcelino says. “Some show visitors said the Sphere was 10 years in the future, but we’ve seen things like this already in other industries.”

Almadesign consciously looked beyond existing aircraft design to rail and road transport designs in drawing up the new cabin. “If you don’t push, as the automotive industry does, you continue to do the same thing,” Marcelino says. “Current expertise in composites makes new window shapes possible, for example, but in 50 years of metal forming, little has changed in aircraft cabins except the electronics.”

Marcelino is a researcher in aerodynamics, but appreciates that specialists in one area cannot clearly see the whole picture. Hence Almadesign, back in 2007, sought out other parties to add more substance to the LIFE project, recruiting Amorim Cork Composites; Couro Azul, a supplier of leather to carmakers; Inegi, the mechanical engineering research arm of the University of Porto with particular expertise in composite structures; and SET, a computer simulation, prototyping and toolmaking specialist.

“The idea was to develop competencies, transfer knowledge between the partners and foster innovation, so we were not just building the same thing again and again,” Marcelino says.

A particular focus was to use materials such as leather, cork and natural fibres to reduce passengers’ direct contact with plastics or metal, he points out. “We used the properties of each not just for decorative purposes but for their acoustic, thermal and fire-retardant qualities.”

Importantly, Embraer also got involved. The consortium tapped into the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer’s database to determine whether passengers were looking for “nice trim” or something more revolutionary, Marcelino says. Later in the process, the complex fabrications that would be needed were first worked up using Embraer virtual reality software to give a better sense of how the LIFE cabin would work in a genuine aircraft cross-section.

The other “high TRL” products alongside the Sphere are cork sandwich panels that are now being tested and should be certified for the aviation industry soon; floating seats that absorb vibration and turn through 180 degrees; and interior panels that promise new sophistication in cabin lighting.

“These are one-piece constructions, responsive to distance and movement,” Marcelino says. “You light the ceiling by passing your hand across it. There’s no switching, or visible bulbs.”

An intellectual property agreement the consortium gives Embraer initial exclusive rights to LIFE’s ideas, but Marcelino expects eventually to involve other OEMs and completion centres. Business jet manufacturers will take some years to adopt these new concepts fully, but the cork panels, for example, could be supplied on a customised basis to begin with, and he hopes could gradually become a standard specification as their benefits are understood.