Engineers are continually working on new ways to improve aviation safety, and the European Union (EU)-funded research project Fly-Bag may have taken a big step towards preventing terrorist attacks.
© Fotolia, 2012
Led by project coordinator Donato Zangani of Italian engineering company D'Appolonia, the Fly-Bag consortium has developed a bomb-proof luggage container that can withstand an explosion on a commercial airliner. In other words, the Fly-Bag technology can stop a small-to-medium-sized bomb hidden in a suitcase or a cargo-hold from damaging the structure or tearing a hole in the fuselage and bringing down the plane.
The rapid success of the project, which was developed from scratch in only two years, was made possible by EU co-funding, which helped bring together an international team of manufacturing, material and aviation engineers. The diversity of industries and partners highlights that the Fly-Bag project is an example of cross-fertilisation among large research centres, universities and small and medium sized companies with specialist expertise in areas like textile and aeronautics.
"High-tech textiles have advanced a lot in the last few years. Even bulletproof vests now use composite textiles," said Zangani. "For this application of the technology, we needed blast protection, first of all, and it needed to be lightweight – every kilo you put in a plane increases fuel consumption. And then of course there is the cost."
Zangani and his team addressed these constraints by combining high-density, ballistic fibres with hybrid textiles from lightweight fibres, including aramid (a kind of strong, heat-resistant synthetic fibre) and carbon.
The primary challenge was to make these state-of-the-art materials contain the rapid gas expansion that occurs in an explosion strong enough to rip open the aluminium fuselage of a plane. This is accompanied by a concentrated shockwave effect called "shockholing" that occurs at the first moments after the detonation.
"We used a multilayered structure of textiles that provided enough resistance to fully contain the gas expansion and the pressure generated by the blast," said Zangani, describing the fine balance needed to contain the various effects of an explosion. "We wanted to have flexibility, but also a delayed gas release of a few seconds to relieve the pressure. Some of the layers were also designed to trap fragments from the explosion."
Although Zangani cannot disclose exactly what sized bomb the Fly-Bag system can withstand, he says it has been designed to contain the kind of explosive used in the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, the terrorist attack in which a commercial airliner was brought down over Scotland by a bomb hidden in the baggage.
D'Appolonia began developing the project in 2008, with a team of five working to complete the final patented prototype in February 2011. As well as speaking to various airlines, Zangani and his team are currently finalising the certification process that will allow the deployment of the Fly-Bag in the aviation sector. The project is in a pioneering position to dominate the market for blast resistant containers.
The engineers are also working with their partners to devise new applications for the Fly-Bag technology. One of the major potential uses is on cargo planes – not to confine terrorist bombs, but to transport dangerous materials.
"For instance, there is the problem of lithium batteries, which can catch fire easily if they are not transported properly," says Zangani. "Our system is already blast-proof, and in a blast you have high temperatures and you can also have fire," he added. "The Fly-Bag has been designed to seal in a fire, starving it of oxygen."
From 2008 to 2011, Fly-Bag's total €3.1 million budget was supported by a €2.2 million contribution from the EU. Joining D'Appolonia in the project were nine other companies, from Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK. According to Zangani, the first Fly-Bags are expected to be installed in commercial passenger planes in 2013.