Expect to learn:
- How the global aviation industry is addressing its impact on the environment.
- What solar electric propulsion projects NASA and several airlines are working on.
- How revolutionary aircraft such as the Flying-V, Airlander, and Overture will be changing the future of aviation.
- How the development of innovative materials and structures are leading to aircraft that morph their geometry in real time according to changing conditions.
- Just how likely it is that we’ll see a zero-carbon flight in our future.
Flying robot taxis. Electric airliners. Planes running on used cooking oil. Sound familiar? Whether you answered yes or no, the fact is that these concepts are either already up and flying, or in the pipeline.
This shouldn’t really be a surprise. In aviation, where designers and technology specialists work in cycles far in advance of what the public actually sees, the future–and in some cases, the far-off future–may already be here.
The aerospace industry is one of the most innovative sectors in the world. And since H.G. Wells and Jules Verne predicted gigantic aircraft in the 19th century, the capacity to dream up better futures has always been a driver for new technologies.
But now the nature of aviation itself is expanding into frontiers worthy of science fiction.
The push to commercialize space is teaching us more about the materials, designs and engineering required for powered flight. Space tourism is giving way to space residency: it’s now possible to become a citizen of the world’s first space nation, Asgardia. If that sounds outlandish, it’s worth recalling that just 30 years ago, the idea of a sustainable aviation fuel made from used cooking oil sounded like a fantasy to the average person.
But while the aviation industry has been shaped by innovation, global connectivity and economic growth, a fourth factor is now looming larger than ever: sustainability.
So what does the future hold for flying?
Possible futures of aviation
Flying is now more popular than ever, its increase driven by economic growth.
Passenger numbers are rising around the world. Figures for 2019 are still not finalized, but they are expected to set a new record for the number of scheduled passengers, at around 4.6 billion–a staggering 130% increase over the numbers set in 2004.
Traditionally, such economic fat times for industries can slow innovation cycles. Yet, alongside the impact of drone technology on everything from security to traffic, meteorology, and logistics, concepts such as PAVs (personal air vehicles)–until recently regarded as utopian fantasy–could soon become a reality. And there are other factors at play, too.
Personal Air Vehicles were always regarded as utopian fantasy. The technology is here now.
Futurologists often overestimate the pace of change in one technology, but underestimate others with at least as much impact on their field. It’s a cultural truism that 20th-century science fiction overestimated advances in space travel because space exploration, in the form of the Space Race, topped the global agenda at the time. However, the very same works often severely underestimated advances in technologies such as telecoms and IT, which have changed far more about our world in the years since.
So from economic growth to cellphones, aviation is subject to all sorts of influences that seem initially to lie far from the business of aircraft and infrastructure. And who’s to say that our expectations for the next 100 years will be more accurate?
While we might still dream about taking off for our daily commute in a flying car like the Jetsons, it’s entirely possible that even if personal aviation vehicles did arrive, their environmental impact might limit their usage.
“One of the biggest challenges will be addressing aviation’s impact on the environment,” says John Strickland, director of JLS Consulting and a leading commentator on the aviation sector worldwide, regularly appearing on the BBC, Bloomberg and CNN.
Across the globe, consumers, governments, investors, and businesses alike are increasingly focused on how our use of fossil fuels are shaping our future. This work includes CORSIA, a plan from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to achieve carbon-neutral growth for aviation from 2020. The industry’s longer term objective to cut net carbon emissions by 50% compared to 2005 will require actions that reduce the real, direct carbon emissions of flying.
“CORSIA relies on the use of emissions units from the carbon market to offset the amount of CO₂ emissions that cannot be reduced through either the application of technological and operational improvements or the use of sustainable aviation fuels,” explains Jane Hupe, deputy director, environment at the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization.
But with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) aiming for one billion passengers to have flown on a sustainable aviation fuel-blend flight by 2025, the sector needs to aim higher when it comes to green innovation.
According to NASA’s own regular assessments of return on investment for its funding, space is a valuable research and development environment for technologies that will benefit commercial partners here on earth. (One historical example is the satnav or satellite navigation, which arrived like something from science fiction on the commercial market.)
With Boeing, Airbus and other aviation giants partnering with space agencies to develop everything from new propulsion methods to robot-aided navigation and cooling, all as efficiently as possible, space fulfils an R&D function for aviation’s future. So what might lie ahead?
One answer is planes powered by the sun itself. NASA’s Solar Electric Propulsion project is right now developing critical technologies to extend the length, range and capability of future space exploration and science missions for both government and commercial customers
NASA’s solar electric propulsion project is developing technologies to extend the length, range and capability of flight in space.
Sustainable propulsion technology is becoming a holy grail in commercial aviation, too, with several aircraft manufacturers already working in this field. Airbus, for one, recently announced the opening of a new, high-security “test house” in Ottobrunn, Germany, dedicated exclusively to alternative propulsion systems and fuels in Europe. There it will test the latest electric motors and hybrid-electric engines, and, more excitingly, look to develop its own, brand-new, low-emission alternative-propulsion units.
The zero-carbon planes of tomorrow?
These are intermediate plans. But what about the designs that will shape our future more sustainably?
We are witnessing a burst of activity, with dozens of new and exciting aircraft concepts underway. The ones we know about include futuristic-shaped planes like the “Flying-V”, supersonic aircraft and Airlander, a new type of hybrid aircraft from Britain.
UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) has developed Airlander 10, an aircraft that uses a combination of proven aerospace technologies from a mixture of airships, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters.
The British Airlander prototype uses technology from airships, fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Its developer Hybrid Air Vehicles is committed to flight with zero carbon emissions.
Landing and taking off from any suitable flat area, the Airlander is designed to provide the ability to connect remote places, opening up new opportunities in logistics, transportation and disaster relief.
But perhaps even more surprising than the futuristic aircraft itself is that the company has a focus on producing zero carbon emissions.
“Our commitment is an active exploration of all available options for moving towards zero carbon emissions,” HAV says. “In the immediate term, we are focused on delivering the type-certified production Airlander 10.”
The company aims to launch the production and type-certification programme for Airlander 10 within the next few months. Flight tests are stated to begin in 2022 with a goal of entering service with customers in 2024.
This will introduce into the marketplace a low-carbon aircraft that is inherently green. HAV isn’t stopping there, though.
“Our engineering team is already looking beyond that, building a development pathway that leads to zero-carbon flight,” the company says.
“They are exploring a wide range of technologies that can deliver the power generation, storage, and delivery required to fly Airlander without the use of fossil fuels. This includes our work with Collins Aerospace and the University of Nottingham to develop electric propulsion for Airlander.” HAV says that it is confident it can achieve a completely zero-carbon Airlander within the next 10 years.
US-based Boom’s sleek, 55–75 seat commercial airliner the Overture, is now through its design phase. Boom is testing its cutting-edge technologies on the futuristic-looking XB-1 demonstrator airplane.
Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes have been influential for the new wave of aviation technologists and designers.
New aviation technology: The lighter, the better
Visionary Buckminster Fuller and architect Shoji Sadao’s modest 1960 proposal in answer to the depletion of finite resources was Project for Floating Cloud Structures (Cloud Nine), an other-worldly concept of airborne towns inside giant geodesic spheres. Fuller proposed that they would levitate by heating the air inside to just one degree above the ambient temperature.
It’s a vision that continues to inspire designers in aviation, too–not just for its ingenuity, but for the apparent challenges it poses to issues of practicality, and the constant reminder of the need to deal in terms of scale and weight.
Former NASA administrator Mike Griffin was known for his coinage of the phrase, “Yes, if…”. Griffin asked his teams to avoid flat “No” answers, and to instead think of the obstacles, even the apparently insuperable ones, that would need to be overcome to get to yes. Suddenly, goes the thinking, it’s not impossible for humans to live on Mars. It is possible, if we can find a way to create and replenish oxygen, and to grow food. These factors would then steer NASA’s working teams’ research.
So it is with giant floating objects like geodesic domes–and planes. Weight is an issue for aircraft when it comes to fuel consumption. Therefore, another practical way to bring aviation closer to sustainability in the future is to make the planes lighter.
Dr. Ben Woods, a lecturer in the University of Bristol’s aerospace engineering department, says the development of innovative composite materials and structures is paramount in the development of greener and more sustainable ideas for future air travel.
“Every type of aircraft is beholden to the same set of physics,” he says. “They dictate that the heavier it is, the more fuel it must burn to fly.”
“As a result, the new high-performance composite materials, structures, and manufacturing methods being developed at the Bristol Composites Institute and in other research groups around the world will be critical for achieving the reductions in aircraft mass needed to make both conventional aircraft and novel configurations more sustainable.”
Woods says researchers are developing stronger, stiffer and lighter fiber materials and polymer matrices from which to make composites, with a focus on sustainable processing and recyclability, as well as weight reduction.
But there are also genuinely revolutionary ideas on the drawing board for intelligent, shape-shifting aircraft that know how to morph in flight to suit flying conditions, thereby saving fuel and flying more efficiently.
“The discipline of structural design is becoming increasingly intertwined with aerodynamics,” Woods says, “as researchers develop more flexible wing structures, which use novel structural configurations to allow the aircraft to adapt, or ‘morph,’ its geometry in real time to changing operating conditions–minimizing the fuel required at all times.”
Fuelling a brighter future of flying
More environmentally friendly supersonic flight is also in the cards.
US, Colorado-based Boom is developing Overture, a 55–75-seat commercial airliner, which is currently moving through the design phase. Its key technologies and specifications are being developed and refined based on the tests the company is running with its XB-1 demonstrator airplane.
The company is aiming for Overture to enter service in the mid-2020s with innovative environmental technology. “We’ve already executed successful engine tests using pure biofuel,” says the company. “We’re designing our aircraft to accommodate alternative fuels.”
Looking at where aviation will be in the next 20 years and beyond, IATA predicts passenger numbers could double to 8.2 billion in 2037, so substantial solutions to tackle emissions are urgently needed. But could every flight be run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel in this century?
There are organizations whose job it is to look into the future of aviation for us. One of them is the Geneva-based Air Transport Action Group, a body that “works to promote aviation’s sustainable growth for the benefit of our global society.”
Air Transport Action Group Executive Director Michael Gill sees a near future in which sustainable aviation fuel like Neste’s is the new global norm: “Although we think there will be technology development around electric and hybrid aircraft for short-haul operations,” he says, “the majority of flights will still require liquid energy sources–and it should be possible to completely power these flights with sustainable aviation fuel well before the end of this century.”
So what are the drag forces on Gill’s vision for the world in 2100? “It will take a monumental effort by aviation industry partners and governments, and also traditional fuel suppliers, who have not been doing nearly enough in this space,” he says.
Material benefits - the future of aviation fuel
There aren’t many of us whose workplace performance targets are geared to the year 2050. But Neste’s Sami Jauhiainen, vice president of business development for renewable aviation, is working with his eyes firmly fixed on the furthest horizons, like many of those planning this exciting, sustainable future for the skies.
“For the aviation industry to achieve its 2050 target–the reduction in net-zero aviation carbon emissions of 50%–new production technologies for sustainable aviation fuels will be critical,” he says. “Our current available raw materials, waste and residue oils and fats, can already today have a significant impact on aviation related carbon emissions, with global availability of at least 30 million tons per year. But the demand will rise to hundreds of millions of tons.”
So what fuel sources could the sustainable planes of tomorrow fly on?
“There are many raw materials with the required potential,” says Jauhiainen. “Algae oils and use of municipal solid waste are certainly relevant options, together with the use of forestry and agricultural residues and chemical recycling of waste plastics. Power-to-liquid fuel from the production of green hydrogen with renewable power is an attractive long-term avenue, too, as there are fewer constraints when it comes to availability of raw materials.”
Flown by algorithm
Professor Iain Gray leads the aerospace capabilities across at Cranfield University in the UK. He shares his long-term predictions for the industry: “The future of the aviation industry and the agenda for the industry’s growth is going to be dominated by sustainability issues, while the last three decades have been dominated by operating efficiencies and making air travel available to the masses,” he says.
He sees this as a shift in consciousness that has the power to change the way we fly, just as the mass travel boom of the past 40 years has changed the very way we think of flying. “After all,” he points out, “the cost of air travel is pretty much the same today as it was in the 1970s.”
Gray expects the future of aviation to rely upon a more cohesive system between aviation, aerospace and ground-transportation systems, with airspace management needing to be optimized, and with both government and businesses working together to ensure environmental considerations in the air and on the ground.
“In the air, the future lies not with circling around Heathrow for 20 minutes but with AI being used to resolve air traffic. On the ground, airports should focus on net-zero emission vehicles for both ground transportation and airport vehicles.”
Are we going to witness 100% zero-carbon emissions for aviation within this century?
It remains to be seen, but the industry, with its incredibly strong drive to constantly evolve and get ahead of the curve, will certainly be working very hard to achieve this.
As Jules Verne wrote, “There are no impossible obstacles; there are just stronger and weaker wills, that’s all.”
And it’s time for the world, and the industry, to join with NASA alum Mike Griffin in accepting his challenge to the agency’s scientists. For sustainable aviation, it’s time we all worked together and got to Yes.