The MIT Plane of the Future
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are hoping to lead us into the future of commercial aviation. When NASA asked MIT to develop a prototype that would improve the current aeronautic standards, a slimmed-down version of the traditional jet came from the drafting boards of the famed institute’s engineering team.
The result is known as the D8 “Double Bubble” – a plane that will use 70% less fuel and meet the growing demand for air travel. It will also be safer, faster, and quieter than the current commercial airliners which crowd our runways.
"Over the next 20 years, Boeing and Airbus combined have forecast demand for more than 32,000 new aircraft valued at more than $10 trillion," says Anthony Harcup from Acumen Design (the design group responsible for the luxurious penthouse "The Residence" on board of Etihad Airways' Airbus A380). "This will see the global fleet size more than double from where it stands today. This gargantuan, upcoming order-book of aircraft has prompted the active encouragement of new types of aircraft into the industry at every level to help fulfil the demand. "
These developments in new generation Boeing and Airbus heavy jets will deliver both direct and indirect benefits to passenger comfort, wellbeing and personalisation.
Structural features of the D8
"Structural advancements are driving thinner sidewall sections and subsequently, in some cases, provide increased fuselage width, in turn increasing available space for passenger seating, living space and amenities," Anthony informed us.
The D8 Double Bubble will feature a skinny, lengthier wingspan and a small tail. This is because the aircraft's central structure will make use of a double fuselage system that consists of two cylindrical bodies positioned side-by-side. By replacing the simple tube-and-wing composition of conventional passenger planes, this innovative design will give the aircraft a wider fuselage that will boost the lift, provide optimal passenger boarding and increasing passenger seating capacity.
In appearance, the D8 will also showcase a slightly elevated cockpit and nose area which reduces the wing and produces a smaller, lighter horizontal tail. This gives the aircraft a nose-up pitching moment. The aircraft's Mach number – the speed at which it travels, compared to the speed of sound – is also reduced from 0.72 to 0.80, giving it a gentler, more-effective low-sweep wing.
Another feature of the D8 Double Bubble is its unique wing and engine configuration. The aircraft's slower speed will enable the installation of unswept wings. Traditional turbines are located on the wings of the plane and directly pull in the swift flow of air, without it passing over the fuselage (the main body of an aircraft that carries passengers or cargo). The Double Bubble's engine will be placed at the back. This allows the air to move across the fuselage first and slow down before it is caught by the engines mounted on the tail. It is known as the Boundary Layer Ingestion technique, which reduces drag and subsequently fuel consumption; but still produces the same amount of force needed to move the aircraft through the air.
"Developments in acoustic materials and assemblies will guarantee far greater sound insulation so that less engine noise will be audible," explains Anthony. "It will ultimately deliver a more calming and relaxing experience."
With new suppliers come fresh thinking, new technologies and increased choice.
"Current advances in existing and emerging display technologies are really exciting," Anthony says. "Flexible touchscreens and clear OLED screens will turn otherwise static cabin surfaces into interactive and customisable displays which can be integrated into the primary structures and connected wirelessly.
This is going to create a more flexible, solid state and immersive environment. Gone will be the bulky dedicated monitors of today. You will be able to customise a number of surfaces in your immediate environment with very little effort. Then these displays will be whatever you want them to be, from an ancillary display of your mobile device or laptop, a digital photo frame, a TV channel, a bedside clock, a gaming display, even a painting or indeed maybe you want nothing at all.
Electronics will be integrated into fabrics using conductive fibres that will deliver heat and light. Some are already established within the automotive industry, to deliver heated seats. This will deliver climatic control to individual seats. Conductive yarns will be embroidered onto curtains or carpets and attach to tiny LED’s to achieve decorative light effects - static or in motion. These could be used to greet a guest as they arrive at their seat, and perhaps become an ambient light source during the flight."
Climate Change and the Future of Aviation
As with other modes of transport, aviation also comes at a cost to our environment. Air travel currently contributes about 2% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions globally. In addition to releasing active substances such as CO2 into the atmosphere, aircraft engines produce a significant amount of noise. For this reason, the industry began taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
The aim of the "Double Bubble" project is to manufacture aircraft that are lighter and more fuel efficient – thus more environmentally friendly. Several companies have already set targets to create a sustainable future. For example, the International Air Transport Association aims to make airlines carbon-neutral by 2020, and reduce the amount of emissions by 50% to those of 2005.
As fuel reserves diminish, the industry now considers alternative sources to power commercial aircraft in the future, including solar panels, batteries, biofuels and hydrogen. The European Advanced Biofuels Flightpath is looking to produce fuel out of plant matter such as wood chips, camelina and even used cooking oil.
Air transport of the future could also eradicate its negative effect on the environment by applying hybrid engines as demonstrated by the world's first hybrid electric plane designed by Siemens, Diamond Aircraft and Airbus in 2011.
These technological advancements will most certainly mean that we will continue to see an evolutionary refinement of aviation that will greatly enhance the passenger experience in-line with environmental benefits.
So how long will it take for this futuristic vessel to grace the sky? Since the D8 is still in its early stage of development it could take up to twenty years before passengers will be able to book their seats on the double bubble aircraft. Until then, a private jet charter will be a safe bet for those looking for a more efficient flight experience.