Boeing's Dreamliner fleet grounded by faulty batteries

The European Aviation Safety Agency announced today that it is joining the US Federal Aviation Administration directive to ground all Boeing 787 aircraft over safety concerns.

The decision to ground the Dreamliner fleet comes after a series of worrisome incidents in Japan and the US. An All Nippon Airways flight was forced to make an emergency landing earlier this week, after the crew reported a strange smell in the cockpit and noticed a problem with the plane’s lithium-ion batteries.

The Japanese ministry of transport promptly ordered that all Dreamliners be kept on the ground until the battery problem can be addressed. Indian, European and US aviation regulators also decided to ground the new planes. Middle Eastern carriers also joined the fun.

It doesn’t appear that all issues plaguing the Dreamliner fleet were caused by faulty lithium-ion batteries, but the All Nippon Airways incident apparently was. The batteries used in the Boeing 787 are supplied by GS Yuasa, a Japanese company that is probably not enjoying all the publicity.

GS Yuasa press officer Tsutomu Nishijima told CNN that the Dreamliner is the “first private jet” to use a lithium battery. Nishijima noted that lithium batteries can heat up quickly due to their structure, but they have systems and circuits in place to prevent overheating.

Tech enthusiasts should be able to recall a series of well publicised incidents with exploding li-ion batteries in laptops and smartphones, but aerospace spec gear should be able to stand up to more punishment than your average 8-cell laptop battery.

Lithium ion batteries offer some very appealing characteristics, as they deliver more density in a lighter package than traditional batteries, allowing aircraft designers to shave off a bit of weight. However, they can also be potentially hazardous and Boeing had to get special approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to use them in the 787.

Luckily the 787 is still a pretty rare sight in our skies. Only 50 planes have been delivered so far, but Boeing has more than 800 on order. Boeing is confident that Dreamliners are completely safe to fly, but the FAA doesn’t seem convinced at this point, and it wants Boeing and 787 operators to prove that the batteries are indeed safe.