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If it looks like a pelican…

Posted: 27th Nov 2019

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I’ve been lucky enough to learn from some very experienced engineers in my career. One of the first tried to teach me technical drawing – with paper, T-square and many pencils – at Glasgow University. Willie Ross learned his trade in the design offices of the Clyde shipyards – he was precise and accurate, and regularly tangled with the folks developing some of the first CAD packages one floor below. But he also stressed the importance of the overall design ‘pleasing the eye’. He had a very simple example: the balance of the doors on a fridge freezer:

All of these will function, but only the one on the right ‘looks right’ i.e. it doesn’t look like it’s going to tip over on you. The engineering of the machine should ensure it wouldn’t fall on you, but that’s not what your vestigial monkey brain tells you at first glance.

To an engineer in the depths of a difficult design – and getting electric motors to lift an aircraft is difficult – this can seem irrelevant. Why does the look of something matter when there are functional problems to solve?

Boeing’s X-32 and Lockheed Martin’s X-35

Back in the 90’s the USA ran a competition to design the Joint Strike Fighter. Final designs came down to the Boeing X-32, and the Lockheed Martin X-35. Both designs completed the functional tests with each design meeting the requirements in different ways and to different degrees. Around that time I first heard the line that pilots – especially fighter pilots – always like to take the most beautiful partner to the dance. The X-35 isn’t a beautiful aircraft by any means (compare it to Concorde or Avanti), but it undeniably looks better than the ‘pregnant pelican’ as anonymous called the X-32. The X-35 won the $200 bn competition. OK, so you can’t make a conclusive link, but you can be sure how it looked made losing easier for the X-32.


Why mention this now?

Some EA designs are coming out which look like they may be heading the way of the X-32. They just don’t ‘look right’. Most EA won’t have pilots, but I’d suggest the vestigial monkey brains of the general public, who will be using EA, are even more susceptible to this attractiveness bias than pilots, and, perhaps more importantly, are less aware of the dangers around aircraft. Stories abound of members of the public throwing pennies into engine intakes or lighting fires in aisles, and they have been known to prefer less technically capable solutions, such as VHS over Betamax, Apple over Windows, or Windows over Unix.

Note blades on wheel-hubs.

Some designs, for example, will need to do some work to avoid the perception of danger, if not actual danger. Some look likely to face similar problems to helicopters when people walk in to the tail rotor. Others remind me of Boadicea’s chariots, ready to take its passengers’s knees off. And as for drones doing urban deliveries – well, the potential for injuring the public is undeniable.

The vast majority of the population vote, initially at least, with their eyes. First impressions count. So while many EA designs are concepts or early prototypes and so will evolve significantly, or are being used by early adopters who ignore such things for the ‘ain’t it cool’ vibe, design teams need to take into account the probable initial public reaction to their overall designs.

What your design – and those across the EA community – looks like will go a long way towards the public accepting your design and EA in general. If it looks like the whirling blades of death, people will be reticent about going near it.

‘Right’ designs, such as Airbus’ Vahana, or Pipistrel’s 801 seem to know this; in addition to looking capable, their designs also look safe and user-friendly.

Unless your design demands that function drives form – such as the Harrier, UniMog or Humvee – then I suggest you follow Willie Ross’ advice:

If it looks right, it probably is.