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Is Boeing's 787 Dreamliner too high-tech for its own good? (+video)

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was designed to be a technological leap forward. But new technologies are often beset by glitches, and the 787's batteries are a big concern.

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The decision by aviation authorities worldwide to ground the Boeing 787 Dreamliner until problems with its batteries are addressed will cost the company money and consumer confidence and create inconvenience for airlines. But that is just the price of pushing the envelope on new technologies, experts say.

The 787 is a next-generation airliner designed to be 20 percent more energy efficient than earlier passenger jets. The 787's lithium-ion batteries are at the center of that leap forward: They produce more power relative to their size than do traditional nickel cadmium batteries, and the 787 relies on its batteries to do much more than previous jetliners do. Its control systems, for instance, are run by electricity, not hydraulics.

But lithium-ion batteries require careful management and can overheat and catch fire without it. The batteries will be a focus of the emergency inspections by aviation officials.

For now, the question is what will be needed to get Dreamliners back in the skies again, and how long that might take. But in the long run, the current challenges might be only a speed bump in the story of a pioneering technology, some experts add.  

“Look at the experience of Apple with their early iPhones catching on fire – but what that new technology has meant for millions,” says Andrew Thomas, author of “Soft Landing: Airline Industry Strategy, Service and Safety.” “It’s always the first guy through the door who gets bloodied, and this has probably gotten more attention because of the 24/7 news cycle. This comes about because of the relentless pursuit of perfection. Every great step forward seems to hit a setback like this, but people need to understand that all human endeavor runs into this.”

The consequences of a 787 catching fire are significantly greater than for an iPhone, however, meaning aviation authorities are taking no chances.

“There is hardly a worse emergency to have than a battery overheat in an airplane," says Rob Mark, a pilot and publisher of Jetwhine.com. "It means you have to get on the ground, right now.”

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