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.