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beyond technology

'Twas The Upgrade Before Christmas: Santa’s Sleigh Gets A High-Tech Makeover

Maggie Sieger
Todd Alhart
December 18, 2019
Reindeer are noble and beautiful creatures but, as far as aviation technology goes, it’s time to face facts: They’re a bit outdated. Santa Claus still relies on flying ungulates to get around, while the rest of the world has moved on to ultraefficient long-range passenger jets, 3D-printed engine parts and space-age composite materials.
Given these technological leaps and bounds, engineers at GE Research in Niskayuna, New York, decided a decade ago that it was time to give Santa’s sleigh a 21st-century upgrade. Seeking to optimize the present-delivery system and deliver value for stakeholders (all the good little girls and boys), they re-envisioned what the craft would look like if Santa added superefficient lighting for optimum night vision, ice-phobic coatings for the chilly North Pole air, asset intelligence tracking technology and sodium batteries. Also, Santa wore a wireless medical sensor to make sure he stayed in flying trim.

But progress stops for no man, and that includes white-bearded folklore figures, and so this year GE’s engineers went back to the drawing board to see if they could trick out Santa’s ride even further in time for the all-important Christmas Eve run.

The team started with the engines, knowing Santa would need a hypersonic rotating detonation engine (RDE) to circle the globe in record time. The hypersonic engines would propel Santa at speeds of Mach 5, or faster than 3,600 miles per hour. That would allow him to fly from New York City to Sydney in less than three hours.

But it turns out moving as fast as Santa needs to travel to circle the globe in one night requires not only the RDE but also a whole host of additional state-of-the-art technologies. GE formed a multidisciplinary team to develop them.

 width= Progress stops for no man, and that includes white-bearded folklore figures. This year GE’s engineers went back to the drawing board to see if they could trick out Santa’s ride even further in time for the all-important Christmas Eve run. Infographic credit: GE Research. Top image credit: Getty Images.

This sleigh needs materials to manage and withstand temperatures generated by hypersonic flying, which superheats air up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit — three times as hot as a backyard barbecue. The red sleigh would be glowing yellow from the heat, and the presents would be vaporized.

The engineers came up with two technologies to dissipate the heat and protect the presents, and Santa. Heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) would be used to build the sleigh body and jet engine blades. The CMCs can withstand temperatures in excess of 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, while still remaining as tough as metal. Engineers also included a 3D-printed ultra-performance heat exchanger, a device that moves the heat away from the engines. It will operate at temperatures exceeding 1,650 degrees F and pressures greater than 3,600 psi. A standard scuba tank is designed to withstand just 3,000 psi. The exchanger has the added benefits of improving engine power output and reducing emissions.

To make sure Santa drinks enough milk to stay hydrated during his long ride, GE engineers suggested a sweat sensor patch. The patch, worn on the arm, will monitor Santa’s vital statistics. The team also wanted to protect Santa from data breaches, so they added digital ghost cyber protection technology to the sleigh. This advanced cyber protection platform can detect and neutralize any cyberattacks on the list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

Finally, GE would embed Humble AI into the sleigh to optimize the efficiency of Santa’s travels. Engineers program the AI with an awareness of the limitations of its simulations of the real world, and give it an alternative way of proceeding that removes any uncertainty from its behavior. In other words, it gives the AI a plan B. This industrial artificial intelligence will help Santa plot his route on Christmas Eve to ensure he minimizes travel time and maximizes present delivery.

But, in the event of a sudden gust of wind or other changes in the flight conditions that the AI doesn’t recognize, it will relinquish control of the sleigh back to Santa. That ensures his flight is as safe and reliable as can be — and that Santa can deliver his presents faster than ever to children around the world.