RUMBLE Program: Russia, EU Team Up to Create Supersonic Aviation of the Future

Political tensions haven’t been able to stop Russian-European cooperation in advanced aeronautics via the RUMBLE program. What’s at stake is the creation of new guidelines for the return of supersonic civil aviation in Europe through the elimination of a key obstacle: excessive noise levels caused by aircraft as they break the sound barrier.

The joint Russian-EU RUMBLE (Regulation and Norm for Low Supersonic Boom Levels) project was launched in Paris last week, effectively tasked with determining the future of supersonic commercial aviation in Europe. The project’s strategic goals include finding a solution to the issue of the supersonic boom generated by aircraft, and to create standards for global commercial supersonic aviation.

Financing for RUMBLE is split down the middle between the Russian Ministry of Industry & Trade and the European Commission.

Sputnik France got in touchwith Sergei Chernyshev, director-general of the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), a key player from the Russian side in the RUMBLE project, to get a better sense of what European companies and governments hope to accomplish.

Offering a bit of background on the issue, Chernyshev explained that one of the key reasons behind the commercial failure of Europe’s Concorde and the Soviet Union’s Tu-144 supersonic airliner was the sonic boom generated by the planes as they hit supersonic speed. The noise issue has led many countries, including the United States, to completely ban the flight of commercial supersonic aircraft over residential areas, effectively depriving airlines of most of their most promising routes.

“The noise caused by a supersonic aircraft as it flies past is virtually indistinguishable from that of an explosion. While it lasts only one or two tenths of a second, this is a very unpleasant phenomenon,” the senior engineer said.

However, the development of new technologies in the area of supersonic aviation may radically alter the situation in the near future, Chernyshev added.

“Aeronautics technologies have advanced and humanity – the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and China, have begun contemplating whether it’s possible to create a plane that’s able to fly at supersonic speeds over residential areas without producing such a loud noise. It’s clear that the plane will still produce some noise – that is just physics. However, what’s necessary is to make this noise so small so as to make it acceptable to people, similarly to how we are all accustomed to the noise of a big city.”

Commenting on the ambitious ideas behind RUMBLE and its efforts to create new standards on noise pollution, TsAGI’s director emphasized that what is at stake is effectively the creation a new generation of aircraft, one which will change human perceptions when it comes to long-distance travel.

The RUMBLE project required almost six years of careful negotiations to get off the ground, the decision on cooperation made in part based on Europe’s desire to catch up with US developments in the field of supersonic aviation. In the US, research in the area is driven mostly by NASA, with private companies including Gulfstream Aerospace (a direct competitor to France’s Dassault Aviation) engaged in their own efforts. The fact that a Dassault Aviation representative is serving as RUMBLE’s technical director is an indication of the company’s engagement in the project.

According to Chernyshev, Russian and French companies played a key role in establishing the cooperative effort. “Before drafting the specifications for this project, we took a very careful look at what had been done in the US, and attempted to find a niche – something that would allow us to add knowledge to this common international issue,” the engineer said.

In other words, Chernyshev noted, RUMBLE’s work will complement that of NASA and that of other US agencies and companies. “The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also funded research in this area, and has accumulated a lot of data which can help form the basis of new standards. RUMBLE will do its part in terms of the methodology used to evaluate noise levels caused by supersonic booms…[including differing perceptions] among people depending on whether it’s day or night.”

From Joint Standards to Joint Development?

The senior engineer did not rule out that in the future, this project, currently tasked with dealing with academic and administrative issues, cannot grow into practical cooperation – i.e. into the joint Russian-European development of a new supersonic commercial jet.

According to Sputnik France, it’s probably no accident that European aviation giant Airbus, rather than governments, is coordinating the project. From the Russian side, the participation of Mikhail Pogosyan, rector of the Moscow Aviation Institute and principal creator of the Sukhoi SuperJet 100, is seen as evidence of RUMBLE’s commercial potential.

“It is difficult for us to compete with the Americans in terms of financing. Therefore, in our opinion, it would only be logical for Europe [including Russia] to launch a joint project, thus sharing the funding and the risks involved,” Chernyshev said. “Will our research lead to a new project? We certainly hope so.”

Effectively, Chernyshev noted, what’s at stake is the creation of the supersonic aircraft of the future, one which can fill the niche of high-speed business travel in the 21st century. “I cannot rule out joint efforts for a more detailed design at the concept level, and potential prototypes for such an aircraft,” he said.

TsAGI’s director has some pretty clear ideas on how this potential future aircraft may look. First of all, he said, the design will likely include a single person crew, supported by an advanced flight control system. In terms of design characteristics, the plane will be a “fundamentally new design,” dissimilar to conventional commercial aircraft, something that will demand highly innovative development work by the Russian aviation industry. The planes will be built from composite materials, making them lighter, and of course, will feature a new engine.

“As far as the engine is concerned, one option is to refine an existing one (although for the moment none of them are entirely suitable). The other is a breakthrough in engine construction and the creation of engines with a variable cycle – i.e. engines which can change their cycle during flight, depending on speed,” Chernyshev explained.

The new planes will probably be small, with seating for between 8 and 20 people, he said. “We believe that a small aircraft of about 60 tons with a capacity for between 12-14 people would be a good start as a business jet, costing 1.5 times that of a conventional subsonic business jet.”

In any case, Chernyshev emphasized Russia-European cooperation on commercial supersonic aviation does not seem affected by any political disputes between Moscow, Brussels, or Europe’s national governments. In fact, cooperation has only increased in spite of tensions and sanctions. “Such projects are the bridge which will help maintain working relations in a difficult political period and restore them once sanctions are lifted,” the official concluded.


India Will Be the Second Country in the World To Use a Novel Nuclear Technology

After 15 years of development and construction, India’s Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is nearing completion. The project is a testament to India’s resolve to rely on renewable sources of energy in the future


As a country with a huge demand for electricity, India is wise to step up its renewable energy game. The country recently announced plans to shut down more than 30 of its coal mines and is steadily veering away from coal-fired plants, so naturally, it needs an alternative.

As the country works to develop its renewable energy sources, perhaps its biggest achievement yet has come from nuclear energy, and its newest nuclear plant is a kind you may not even know existed.

For 15 years now, India’s nuclear scientists have been working on a gigantic nuclear facility in Kalpakkam, a city on the shores of the Bay of Bengal near Chennai. Unlike most facilities, this one is a fast breeder nuclear reactor, a technology India has been working to perfect for 27 years now, beginning with an experimental facility called a Fast-Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR).

Fast breeder reactors are different from conventional nuclear plants because the neutrons that sustain the atomic chain reaction travel at higher velocities. This type of reactor is capable of generating more fuel that it consumes, a behavior typically made possible by elemental uranium.

“[F]ast reactors can help extract up to 70 percent more energy than traditional reactors and are safer than traditional reactors while reducing long lived radioactive waste by several fold,” Yukiya Amano, Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, explained to the Times of India.

Uranium isn’t common in India, but the country has the second largest store of thorium, so the Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) in Kalpakkam uses rods of that element.


Prior to India’s PFBR, the only commercially operating fast breeder nuclear reactor was Russia’s Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, located in the Ural Mountains. Russia’s fast breeder reactor utilizes elemental uranium, though, so India’s is truly one of a kind. China is also pursuing a similar program, but their technology is more than a decade behind India’s.

Other countries, such as Japan and France, have also tried to develop their own fast breeder technologies, but they haven’t been successful because of technical and safety reasons. However, Arun Kumar Bhaduri, Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkamtold the Times of India that the technology is safe: “[F]ast breeder reactors are far safer than the current generation of nuclear plants.”

With the PFBR, India is pioneering a kind of nuclear technology that could potentially be the country’s greatest renewable energy source. That’s a big step, especially since nuclear fission remains the only kind of nuclear reaction we’ve managed to sustain, though efforts to make nuclear fusion viable are still in the works.

India is the world’s second largest contributor to climate warming gasses, behind only China. While the latter seems to be leading the world in harnessing solar and wind energy, India is determined to make nuclear energy work in their favor.

Asian firms lead the race to harness AI technology

Baidu is one of Asia’s corporate pioneers that are leading in the race to find applications for an innovation that promises to unleash a revolution



It is not an arms race, but it is expected to have a bigger impact than bombs or missiles on the future of global heavyweights such as the United States, China and Japan.

Asian and US companies are racing to develop artificial intelligence (AI) technology, which promises to revolutionise every aspect of humanity, from computing to lifestyles, from doing business to space exploration.

The manager of the T. Rowe Price Global Technology Fund, Josh Spencer, said US companies in Silicon Valley, California were slightly ahead of their Asian counterparts in funnelling resources into developing AI.

But China’s internet players, such as Baidu, are close behind in developing products that think and do tasks better than humans. Spencer said Japanese and South Korean companies were also pushing into AI, though Indian enterprises are largely absent from the field.

“Baidu is Asia’s clear leader in AI,” said Spencer, alluding to the degree of concentration and amount of resources that the Beijing company is devoting to developing the technology.

Baidu dominates web services in China, making revenue of US$10.2 billion last year. Spencer said the company was looking for specific applications for AI in its business.

One example is applying the technology in self-driving cars, so they can use Baidu online maps. Baidu is building a network of laboratories that focus on research in fields such as speech recognition, in anticipation of internet searches being voice-activated, Spencer says.

The development of self-teaching, neural net technology is at the cutting edge of research into AI. The technology is intended to let machines analyse big data, or extremely large sets of data, and make decisions based on their analyses.

Spencer says AI is at the core of all of business endeavors Baidu will make in future. In contrast, big Chinese companies, such as Tencent and Alibaba, are developing AI mainly as an adjunct to their principal businesses, he says.

The new electricity

“We are now living and breathing the era of artificial intelligence,” Baidu chief executive Robin Li Yanhong said during a conference call with stock analysts in February.

“We believe that AI is the new electricity, which will transform industry after industry, new applications and products that we have yet to even imagine, and fundamentally, change how users interact with technology.”

In a message to Baidu employees on May 4, Li announced the company’s new mission was to become a global AI leader.

How do the efforts of Baidu in the field of AI measure up to those of its rivals in the United States?

Spencer said Baidu and Google, the biggest company in the US internet search market, were pretty much neck-and-neck. He said both were pouring similar amounts of resources into projects that would use AI, such as the development of self-driving cars, smart assistants for phones, language processing and internet search and map technologies.

“It’s almost like Baidu and Google are mirror images of each other,” he said. Baidu Research, a laboratory which draws elite scientists from all over the world, does its research and development into AI. The Baidu AI R&D network encompasses its Institute of Deep Learning, its Big Data Lab and its Augmented Reality Lab, and US laboratories.

A technology and investment analyst, David Garrity, who heads GVA Research in New York, says: “Baidu set up its first AI lab in the US way back in 2013.”

In January, Baidu tapped AI specialist Lu Qi, a former senior executive of Microsoft, to become its president and operating chief.

Baidu is pivoting toward AI as the business it does as its main fields slow and as its newer ventures, such as those into online video and group payments, lose money. The company did not respond to questions from the Asia Times.

Alibaba, Tencent in the running

Alibaba, the flagship company of Chinese internet tycoon Jack Ma, is moving into AI on two fronts. Spencer said Alibaba was using AI to make recommendations to consumers.

He said the company was offering AI services as part of its cloud-computing business, like Amazon did in the US.

Tencent, a Shenzhen company controlled by Pony Ma Huateng, is also using AI in its operations. Tencent runs the WeChat social media app, which is hugely popular in China. The company had revenue of US$16 billion in 2015.

Spencer said Tencent was using AI internally to support WeChat, its payment service and its video and product recommendation services.

“Tencent’s focus is on smart assistants that fit within their core product,” Spencer said. This showed that Tencent regarded AI mainly as a secondary technology for supporting its services, rather than a technology to be pursued for its own sake, he said.

Garrity said AI could be enormously useful to Tencent. WeChat has about 900 million users a month, giving the company a market where it can exploit AI by integrating the technology with text, speech and mapping software.

Tencent, like Baidu, is interested in self-driving cars. In March, it bought a 5% stake in Tesla, the US maker of electric cars, for US$1.78 billion.

Tesla is one of several Silicon Valley companies developing driverless motor vehicles. Tencent is also opening a big AI laboratory in Seattle, Washington, headed by Yu Dong, formerly a leading Microsoft researcher.

Japan’s industrial focus

The Japanese profile on the AI horizon was surprisingly low, Spencer said. He said Japanese companies, instead of using AI to improve products and services for consumers, were using it to make their factories run better.

FANUC Corp, a maker of industrial robots, recently introduced a platform that uses AI to coordinate more closely its robots and other automated systems in a factory. Other Japanese players are developing technology with similar purposes.

“Japan doesn’t have a strong consumer internet business. But they’re really strong with industrial allocations of tech, including AI,” Spencer said.

Japanese companies are also using AI in the services sector. Fukuoka Mutual Life laid off 30 employees in January and replaced them with an AI system based on the IBM Watson Explorer analytics platform. The technology is used calculate insurance payouts for thousands of policyholders.

In South Korea, companies are working on using AI in smart assistants. Call center agents are given AI smart assistants, which can be instructed to do specific tasks such as dispatching a truck, ordering parts from a supplier or sorting out queries about bills.

Spencer said Indian companies were looking into ways to use AI, but none had yet come up with a noteworthy product or service.

A study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers and the Associated Chambers of Commerce of India found that several Indian startups were considering developing AI-based conversational bots, speech recognition tools and other social media applications.



Nine of the 10 Biggest Power Plants in the World are Hydro-power

By Editors of Power Engineering

Nine out of the 10 biggest power-generating facilities in the world are based on hydroelectric power, the U.S. Energy Information Administration announced.

Additionally, four out of the group are based in China, with all four beginning operations in the last 13 years.

The world’s largest dam, Three Gorges, taps into the Yangtze River and has a capacity of 22.5 GW. Hydroelectric power is the second-largest source of electricity behind coal, with 20 percent of the country’s total generation in 2015.

Three of the biggest are based in South America, including the second-largest power plant in the world. Brazil’s Itaipu Dam on the Parana River has a capacity of 14GW. In 2015, it ranked first in the world in generation with 89.5 billion kWh, compared to Three Gorges’ output of 87 billion kWh.

The sole non-hydroelectric plant in the list is Japan’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, a nuclear plant and the sixth-largest in the world. However, it was shut down along with most Japanese nuclear plants after the Fukushima accident in 2011 and has yet to restart.

The Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington is the seventh-largest in the world with a capacity of 6.8 GW. It was also the largest power plant in the world from 1949 through 1960, and retook the title after an expansion from 1979 through 1986.