The future of aviation and pilotless planes
With growing demand for air travel, rapid technological innovation and mind-boggling predictions for the future, the aviation sector is on a fast-track that’s never seen before. With air passengers set to increase to 7.8 billion by 2036, it’s predicted that in the next 20 years the aviation industry will support 97.8 million jobs and contribute $5.7 trillion GDP to the world economy. Even if these estimates fall a little short, it’s a given that the aviation sector is on a fast-track the likes of which the world has never seen before; and it’s anybody’s guess which commercial company, aircraft manufacturer, airline, scientist or aviation organization will be the first to turn science fiction into everyday air travel.
Why the rush to change the future of flight?
The race to change the way we fly is driven by two primary concerns: a growing global population and high levels of fuel consumption and carbon emissions. In 1920, seven years after the Wright brothers’ first successful manned flight, the human population was recorded at 1.8 billion compared to today’s figure of 7.6 billion. That’s a lot more passengers taking to the skies, with carbon emissions reaching dangerously high levels in recent years.
At the turn of the 20th Century, there was much talk about the growing London population and their use of horses to transport goods and get around, with experts predicting the UK capital would soon be knee-deep in horse poo. But then came the automobile to solve the problem. The aviation industry is hoping for a similar breakthrough and it might be closer than you think.
We’ve chosen our airplanes of the future based on four areas of innovation that are most likely to change the way we fly: personal air travel, electric commercial aircraft, unmanned flight and airplane redesign.
Flying is about getting around
The original appeal of the motor vehicle was that you could hop in, start the engine and set off with relative ease and speed to get wherever you wanted to go. A similar desire drives the evolution of jets or planes for personal use, with Airbus and Boeing already showcasing aircraft designs that allow drivers to easily move around congested cities.
In a similar vein, UK aviation consortium Neva Aerospace unveiled AirQuadOne, a prototype for future personal manned aerial transportation. The vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft uses Neva’s static thrust electric turbofan technology and is powered by a battery pack that can be recharged at electric car charging stations. The aircraft has been in development since 2013, with hopes of achieving light aircraft certification from the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).
One ‘flying car’ has already swooped off the sci-fi screen and into the air. Debuted at the Paris Air Show and available to pre-order for $1.2 million, the Slovakian AeroMobil transforms into flight mode in under three minutes and has a top speed of 100mph and a maximum take-off weight of 960kg.
The only way the airline industry can solve the conundrum of creating eco-friendly air travel is through the full electrification of commercial aircraft. So far, success or failure is balanced on the energy density of batteries – the amount of power that can be generated from a battery of a certain weight.
An electrical transcontinental aircraft could be possible when batteries are capable of producing 400 Watt-hours per kilogram, with a ratio of power cell to overall mass of between 0.7-0.8. Lithium-ion batteries are currently able to achieve energy-densities of about 300Wh/kg, which means we’re not too far off.
Back in 2015, Airbus flew the first twin-engine electric E-Fan demonstrator plane across the English Channel; while Boeing and JetBlue have both invested in electric aircraft startup Zunum, with plans to introduce a 12-passenger hybrid-electric prop plane into service by 2022.
Another possible star of the future is the Alice Commuter prototype, an all-electric light aircraft conceptualized by Israeli startup company Eviation. It’s envisaged that the plane will use distributed propulsion with one main pusher propeller at the tail and two pusher propellers at the wingtips, powered by 6,000lbs of lithium-ion batteries. The aircraft is designed to accommodate nine passengers over 600 miles, with Uber already eyeing the Alice Commuter as a possible air taxi of the future. Eviation aims to undertake its first commercial flights by 2021.
Meanwhile Boeing has revealed that future research and development priorities include the possibility of electric-powered freighter aircraft, which will be smaller than the freighter aircraft of today and use electric or hybrid electric propulsion systems.
The widespread interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and pilotless drone aircraft technology among aircraft manufacturers and their clients means that technology is developing apace. Virginia-based aircraft manufacturer Aurora Flight Sciences (who have worked with NASA to fly aircraft on Mars) is developing Centaur, an optionally piloted aircraft that can be flown with or without a pilot on board. This modified Diamond DA42 twin-engine light aircraft is programmed for three modes of travel: flown by a human pilot; flown by a remote pilot on the ground; and flown by a remote pilot with an onboard safety pilot in the cockpit for see-and-avoid awareness.
The Centaur isn’t an experiment; it’s a commercial aviation product that’s already in use by the Swiss Defense Department. The manufacturer’s ultimate goal is to develop a fully-automated air taxi that allows a passenger to enter the aircraft and push buttons to enter their destination airport; an experience that would feel like a hybrid of an Uber ride in an autonomous car and a private jet charter.
On the larger end of the scale, Boeing is planning for a time when large passenger jets can fly without pilots, with initial tests on its latest technology scheduled for next year. Given that jetliners can already take off, cruise and land using onboard flight computers, Boeing believes its biggest obstacle will be regulators, who don't yet know how to certify pilotless planes, rather than technology.
In 2016 Amazon announced a partnership with the British government to test the viability of delivering small parcels by drone. Amazon was granted permission to explore three areas: operations beyond line of sight, obstacle avoidance and flights where one person operates multiple autonomous drones. The experiment involves drones carrying deliveries that weigh 2.3kg (5lbs) or less, which make up 90% of Amazon’s sales. Amazon is also testing similar technology in the U.S., but faces serious restrictions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Future aircraft design
NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) project, now in its fourth year, focuses on identifying and nurturing innovations that will significantly contribute to developing quieter, more energy efficient and lower-emission aircraft for the future. They’ve identified three main ideas to nurture during the 2019 fiscal year:
- Composite Materials: Allowing for the seamless blending of fixed-wing aircraft wings and tail to the main hull in one continuous line. This will enable the production of planes that use less fuel and produce fewer emissions and noise. Rather than simply acting as a stronger adhesive or laminate, these materials would create a more reliable and predictable interface between the parts.
- Heat: This is important to NASA, because the hybrid-electric and all-electric airplanes they’re studying at the moment rely on motors that generate heat and create less efficiency. The electric motors in larger aircraft like NASA’s theoretical partial turbo electric single-aisle airliner, STARC-ABL, need megawatts of energy to operate, resulting in a far greater heat load. NASA is developing ways to minimize heat from the power system by redesigning power-related components and putting them together inside the aircraft.
- Electric Motors: The third big idea involves using an electric motor that can be powered by a water-based, iron-infused solution instead of lithium-based batteries. This is important for the push towards electrical aircraft, as there’s only a finite amount of the lithium element on Earth.
So what’s next?
Future aviation isn’t limited to air taxis, electrical commercial aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and pilotless drone aircraft. NASA is developing ultra-lightweight airplanes, blended wing-bodies and quiet supersonic commercial travel; while aero glass – a new product that sits over the eyes allowing pilots to visualize terrain, navigation, traffic, weather and airspace – is available in an early form. Speculative technology includes aircraft constructed from a lightweight adhesive fluid within a pattern of carbon nanotubes, which can be released to quickly ‘set’ mid-flight and rectify any damage; and a flexible aircraft system made up of a number smaller jets that can split apart to quickly adapt to any situation and allow for more efficient travel.
The aviation industry is in a creative and rapidly-developing phase, making advancements hard to anticipate. The only thing we know for sure is that future aircraft will be very different from what we see today.
Until your AirQuadOne is available for purchase or you can ring for an Uber air taxi, why not charter a private jet to get you to your destination? ACS will handle every detail, leaving you free to enjoy your flight.