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Inside the Works: Boeing’s New R&D Center

Boeing’s Steve Swaine and Brittany Black at the company’s new research center in Huntsville.

Boeing’s Steve Swaine and Brittany Black at the company’s new research center in Huntsville.

Photo by Dennis Keim

This July, Boeing is celebrating its 100th year by developing new products and services “for the next 100 years,” says Steve Swaine, director of Support & Analytics Technology, who leads Boeing Research & Technology Alabama in Huntsville.

In early 2015, BR&T Alabama opened in Huntsville — one of five new research centers. Swaine has hired about 300 engineers and scientists to work in the labs, conducting research and development projects to support Boeing’s defense, space and commercial businesses. “There is amazing talent in this region and we are really benefiting from being here,” Swaine says. 

Throughout the labs, Boeing is studying problems and developing products that will likely influence air travel, space travel and missile defense in the coming decades. On a media showing in April, we took a close-up look at the decontamination lab, which focuses on the public health and safety of the flying public. 

The lab is located in a small, mobile space, but can handle “large-scale testing,” says Brittany Black, manager of the lab. She notes that the testing area is large enough to hold a V-22 Osprey, Boeing’s multi-mission, tilt-rotor military aircraft. On this occasion, the lab was set up to test decontamination agents for passenger airplanes. 

Current cleaning agents used in airline cabins clean only the visible surfaces of seats and armrests, Black says. That process could leave passengers at risk for inhaling or coming into contact with chemical or biological pathogens. “We are introducing a chemical decontaminant that is able to clean underneath and around all surfaces, providing airlines with new approaches that are more efficient at eliminating those contagions,” Black says. “In addition, we’re taking into account material accountability; some current processes can ultimately damage the airplane.” 

In the lab, Black and other scientists apply pathogens to airline seats or armrests and then use machines to spray a chemical decontaminant into the area. Using analysis from computational fluid dynamics, scientists make computerized predictions of how the decontaminant will work, and then test their predictions in the lab experiments. 

“We are constantly working to develop new service capabilities that airlines can use to provide safer environments for their passengers,” she says. 

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