Future flight

The next 10 years

Any day now? NASA’s vision for future urban air mobility features drones, air taxis and electric airliners. (NASA)

Despite the large amount of historical content on ‘airscape’, there’s also an abiding interest in what’s coming next… If you want to see the future, hold a mirror up to the past.

So when I was recently asked what I thought would be aviation’s biggest influencer in the coming decade, I was happy to do a little crystal ball gazing. 

Prepare to be amazed

With news of a fresh advance or innovative technology breaking every second week, I’m convinced aviation is already entering its next Golden Age. In just the last month or so, contenders as diverse as Burt Rutan and Porsche have both announced their entry into the Urban Air Mobility (UAM) sweepstakes. That field alone now has more than 170 entrants.

The Vertical Aerospace ‘Seraph’, one of many UAM contenders and one of several now flying. (Vertical Aerospace)

And Garmin has released its amazing Emergency Autoland technology for GA. 

At the same time, NASA and a handful of stayers, backed by a network of ever-shifting industry alliances, are getting steadily closer to suburb-friendly supersonic flight. 

But for all that, my call on the 2020s could still surprise you. 

Above it all

NASA stands as a lightning rod for nearly all this innovation.

Despite their profile as a space agency that second ‘A’ still stands for ‘Aeronautics’ and NASA is heavily invested in future airliner designs, quiet supersonic technology, advanced composites and shape-memory alloys – along with numerous incremental advances in efficiency, noise suppression, air traffic systems, aircraft de-icing, aerodynamics and more. 

Visualisation of the single-seat X-59 QueSST, currently under construction in LM’s famed Skunk Works. (Lockheed Martin via NASA)

In many ways, the Administration is a peak body providing direction, focus and partnership for myriad aviation innovators around the world – from small tech start-ups to major R&D divisions within the established industry behemoths. 

It isn’t global, officially, but its influence and leadership ripples far beyond US borders. 

Urban Air Mobility

Nowhere is this better represented than by NASA’s commitment to advancing Urban Air Mobility or UAM.

NASA has framed the concept of an entire UAM system that includes delivery drones and air taxis, and covers every aspect from vehicle design and propulsion to safely controlling the intensely busy urban airspace that will result.

By sharing ideas and co-sponsoring design challenges NASA is, at the very least, inspiring UAM developers around the world. That’s fuelling prolific advances in vehicle designs and electric propulsion systems – with a steady stream of prototypes being announced, visualised, built and flown. 

Jostling for room

I don’t have the time, space or energy to cover every design currently getting oxygen under this ‘air taxi’ umbrella. But it’s worth noting the recent test flights by the loftily titled Seraph multi-rotor from Vertical Aerospace, with its 250kg payload, and the more radical Lilium VTOL “jet” out of Munich, Germany.

The distributed ducted fans of the Lilium ‘Jet’. Already flight proven, these arrays tilt to provide angled thrust for ascent and descent. (Lilium)

At the same time, Uber has announced its plans to have air services operating over Dallas, Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia by 2023 and has its own Elevate vehicle in development. Meanwhile, Boeing’s GoFly competition aims to push development of personal UAM craft as everyone from Airbus to Daimler jostles for elbow-room in the UAM space. 

NASA is doing its part too, helping fuel the development of ideas and solutions with its UAM Grand Challenge, which aims to co-ordinate NASA, FAA and industry efforts to make UAM a reality. It also includes, critically, efforts to lay the legislative and airspace foundations for a UAM system – something the vehicle designers tend to gloss over.  

Electric aircraft?

One of the cornerstones of this exploding obsession with UAM is the advance of electric motor and battery technologies.

For my money, electric propulsion is easily the area with the biggest potential to benefit aviation and beyond. Quiet, clean and cheap flight should be a hugely liberating force for private pilots, holiday travellers, airlines and even the people who live patiently under airport approach and departure tracks.

So how’s that looking?

The Sun Flyer 2 prototype – as exciting and elegant as electric flight currently gets. (Beekachu | wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0)

Well, all-electric self-launching gliders have been around for a while already. More recently, Liaoning Ruixiang, Pipistrel and Bye Aerospace have each brought their all-electric GA aircraft to varying stages of certification. 

A little further up the capacity chain, the eViation Alice is an ambitious but practical approach to pure-electric short-haul airliners. It could well be the shape of things to come for commuter, feeder and let’s call it ‘utility’ (prop-powered business aircraft, air ambulance, etc) flight.

Watch this space.

The Eviation Alice prototype takes shape, ahead of the 2019 Paris Air Show. Sharp-eyed readers will note that future pilots will need to earn their tail-wheel ticket. (Eviation Photo)

Here come the hybrids

Other ‘green’ aircraft are in development or research testing, including NASA’s X-57 Maxwell which is a Tecnam P2006T-based airframe using distributed electric propulsion along a specially built wing. The project is making steady progress, with successful ground tests of the wing, motors and battery packs. A first fully configured flight is scheduled for next year, although that has been pushed back from 2017 already. 

Then there’s the Airbus / Rolls-Royce ‘E Fan X’ which, strictly speaking, is only a technology test-bed for a hybrid-electric jet. More on that in a minute.

Beyond that, things tend to fly off into long-term haze or unfounded optimism. The EasyJet/Wright Electric project slated for test flights from 2027 is a good example of the former, while the apparently defunct Zunum Aero hybrid airliner frames the latter.

The stalled Zunum Aero hybrid airliner highlights the potential – and perils – of starting with a clean-sheet design. It was meant to be flying by now. (Zunum Aero)

And to prove this whole area is advancing faster than I can get this article published, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions in the UK have just announced Project Fresson – a UK Government backed program to convert stalwart short-haul Britten-Norman Islander twin-turboprops to electric power with a hybrid system for back-up and extra range. No strangers to aerospace aviation, Cranfield expect their first customer, Orkney Islands connector Loganair, to be flying the re-powered Islanders by 2023…

Flying hands-free 

Hot on the heels of this dual vision of clean electric power and a pulsing UAM system is remote and autonomous flight control. Remote aircraft (you can call them ‘drones’, ‘remotely piloted vehicles’ or ‘RPV’s) have made enormous leaps in just a few years – literally flying from playthings for enthusiasts to serious military and commercial hardware …and right back to playthings for enthusiasts. 

Even with some kind of drone in every second home, the technology is probably far more advanced than most of us realise. Who really knows what warfighters can do with their frontline drones today – let alone what they have in the pipeline for tomorrow. 

Does that mean we’ll see autonomous flying machines any time soon? Not likely. The technology still needs to go through a ton of testing and proving before your local authority is going to let aircraft start flying themselves, let alone with you and your family aboard. 

Far from the glamour of Jetsons-like computer renderings, that development is going to take place in an incremental sequence of industrial, military and remote area applications first. 

To put it bluntly, your children’s autonomous air taxi is more likely to trace its DNA to a self-driving combine harvester than an Airbus Vahana.

Back to Mach One

Of all the ‘headline’ advances we’re seeing, the one that’s best set to take-off is almost certainly supersonic business jets.

That sphere has a couple of big advantages over the other technologies. For one, all the answers to supersonic transport have been around since the 1960s. Concorde was able to supercruise at Mach 2.2 with 100 or so people aboard, thanks largely to an ingenious engine inlet design…

There’s more risk of people forgetting those advances than not being able to recreate them.  

Still breathtaking, almost 50 years later: Concorde F-WTSA (102) the first Concorde to fly to the US, seen in June 1973. (fsll2 | flickr.com CC BY-NC 2.0)

The big sticking points today are just the boom and the cost. NASA already has quiet boom technology in real-world testing and Lockheed-Martin is building its X-59 QueSST (Quiet Supersonic Technology) jet as you read this. Meanwhile, there’s little doubt corporations can and will be able to justify the time and cost benefits of travelling between meetings faster than sound.

Going faster slowly

So (our return to) supersonic flight is mostly waiting on a suitable airframe, and several big names – including Airbus, Lockheed-Martin, Sukhoi, Tupulev and Gulfstream – have all dipped a toe in the water since the early 2000s. Most have dangled the prospect of a glamorous civil airliner, but focused on developing a business jet first.

Owing much to its supersonic ancestor, the Boom Aerospace ‘Overture’ airliner is currently aiming to take off by 2027. (Boom Aerospace)

Today, we’re down to Aerion (now with Boeing as its third step-parent), Spike Aerospace, and Boom Technology.

As the British and French governments demonstrated with Concorde, and the US government discovered with a blush, flying through the sound barrier with a martini on your tray table takes nothing if not commitment!

Will someone be building supersonic jets by 2029? Absolutely. By 2025? Meh. 

The contenders’ ambitious publicity statements and sophisticated websites are somewhat at odds with NASA’s deliberate and structured research program. I know ten years can be a long time in technology, but ‘by 2029’ definitely means that end of the decade. 

The latest iteration of the Aerion AS2 Mach 1.6 Supersonic Business Jet, or SBJ. Aerion is a proven stayer in this perilous category. (Aerion)

And the winner is…

So which of these fast-moving technologies do I feel will have the biggest impact on the 2020s? 

None of them.

That’s right. Nada. First, let me say it’s not really possible to cover every granular project in such a broad sector and, as always when I lure myself into these kinds of predictions, I’d be delighted to be wrong. 

But despite all the research and excitement, the economics of change will probably struggle to make a dent in incumbent technologies for the best part of the 2020s.

Where NASA sees its research into hybrid-electric airliners leading – a differently-propelled tube with wings. (NASA)

Despite all the research and excitement, the economics of change will struggle to compete with incumbent technology.

Boeing’s latest Commercial Market Outlook 2019–2038 predicts demand for a staggering 44,000 new airplanes over the next two decades. So you can forget radical blended wing bodies and boundary layer ingestion engines until at least the mid-2030s: Plane makers will be flat out building conventional tubes with wings and banking the profits for as far as you can see. 

Alternative energies are another case in point. 

…Not actually electric

Electric flight might look competitive on a cost-per-mile basis, but even the most energy-dense batteries, currently about 0.3kW per kg (although a threefold improvement to 1kW per kg is on the horizon) don’t come close to Jet-A’s 12kW per kg. 

That means, for the foreseeable future, batteries will occupy an outsized share of valuable payload in the small, short-haul aircraft they power. The battery in the Alice, for example, accounts for more than 56% of MTOW. Just the battery.

The NASA Electric Aircraft Testbed (NEAT) for developing and ground testing full sized hybrid airliner power. (NASA)

NASA is exploring larger electric airliners but, as they note, aircraft the size of a 737 need megawatts of power to fly – and we’re still some way from building a flying power station.

Even then, the NASA concept is actually a hybrid that relies on conventional jet engines to drive its generators; which sounds a lot like carrying two power sources instead of just one, and then flying at propeller speeds instead of jet. 

The Airbus E Fan X is in much the same camp, except the Europeans intend to do their hybrid research in the air. But let’s keep it real: The modified BAe-146 four-jet – a short-haul four-burner with a great track record – will fly with three of its Lycoming/Honeywell ALF-502 kerosene burners intact, plus a single 2 megawatt (3,400 hp) electric fan unit, 2 metric tonnes of battery, a 2MW generator, and another RR AE 2100 turbine to drive the generator.

The E Fan X. That No.3 engine isn’t a Jet-A turbine – it’s an electric fan powered by a battery powered by a generator powered by a Jet-A turbine. (Airbus)

Hybrid-electric airliners are going to be a feature of the 2020s, but don’t expect too much before the second half of the decade. Given aviation’s track record (and economic incentives) for advancing  fuel economy, it’s an obvious next step. Hybrids rely on relatively well known technology. And essentially, developers can just keep adding established fuel-burning technology until their new installation flies.

Green-backing aviation

Could those generator turbines at least be made to run on a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)? (They’re not just biofuels any more.) Yes of course. But developing a truly viable SAF is still only part of a much bigger challenge…

Most jet fuel doesn’t come from trucks, but pipes under the concrete. (faungg’s photos | flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0)

It’s a lot like the difference between building UAM aircraft and building a safe traffic system to operate them in: Deploying the necessary fuel distribution infrastructure across oceans and under airport aprons will take a staggering amount of money and disruption. 

Meanwhile oil stubbornly refuses to even start running short. JP4 still costs less per litre than supermarket Coca-Cola and even quite a few brands of bottled water.

As long as aviation’s CO2 output remains at a relatively negligible 2% of total global emissions, even recharging electric airliner batteries from coal-fired power plants would be a backward step. 

So from the financial, operational and environmental point of view, there’s simply not enough incentive to switch energy sources. 

Size does mattter

The other main plank of airline economics is capacity. It’s why Juan Trippe first asked Boeing to build him a jumbo jet back in the 1960s. It’s also why today’s workhorse single-aisle airliners move over a hundred passengers with each departure. Regional turboprops like the SAAB 340 lift 30-plus. The Alice is only built for nine.

Smaller aircraft mean fixed costs like crew salaries, crew accommodation, administrative overheads and airways charges all have to be shared between fewer passengers – and that’s where the economy of electrics start to unwind. 

This cutaway of the X-57 shows just how much loadspace is given to batteries in current electric aircraft concepts. (NASA)

Ticket prices aren’t going to simply vaporise with plug-in planes. They may make a difference on short routes with low patronage but, when it comes to range electric aircraft still don’t have the legs, and the airlines are pretty sure big is better.  

Carbon fibre promises

That said, the second half of the 2020s will almost definitely maybe see the return of supersonic transports and the arrival of all-electric Urban Air Mobility aircraft. In small numbers. And neither is likely to mature past being a rich person’s plaything in that timeframe. 

Supersonic flight is still an unequivocal extravagance, while UAM is simply not scalable with our current technology. If you need to visualise the challenge, just look at your local freeway at 8am on a Monday morning. Then project it into the sky.

I’m also waiting to hear how we’re going to manage the noise of a bazillion air taxis, when even the neighbour’s one Mavic Pro sounds like they’ve thrown a hornets’ nest into my kitchen.

Cast iron nothing

Different time, different technology… same technique: A 1950s visualisation of the proposed US Interstate highway system.

It suits innovators’ needs to render crisp computer images of a clean, bright and uncrowded future filled with amazing technology. Architects and urban planners do the same thing. But as with almost every new housing development, shopping precinct, freeway system, airport terminal and city park ever, expect the realities of UAM, electric airliners and supersonic mass transit to be rather more mundane when they finally get here.

Even then, there are no guarantees on when or if they will happen.

Fifty years ago city planners were putting heliports everywhere, so we could all shuttle between downtown and the airport (to catch Concorde, of course) in helicopters. UAM for the 1970s. And yet we’re still sitting in traffic. And as the Boeing 2707 showed everybody, no project is too big to be cancelled. 

So if you’re thinking about stumping up an early deposit on this latest iteration of the flying car, why not specify a rack for your hoverboard while you’re at it?

Still the key element

It’s easy, even pleasant, to seduced by a future-tech fantasy. 

But for all the advanced materials, gorgeous curves and artificial intelligence being offered to us in 2019, I think the most important factor in aviation in the 2020s will be something much more familiar and complex: A new generation of pilots. 

As global airlines seek to stem a massive aircrew shortage and fill those 44,000 new jets they’ll be buying, the growing alumnus of direct-entry ATPLs is going to out-number ‘career’ pilots by increasing orders of magnitude. 

What won’t change in the 2020s is what matters most – piloting skills. (John Christian Fjellestad | flickr.com CC BY 2.0)

By and large, they will be a class of highly trained system managers and CRM practitioners, who will feel at home in a steadily rising tide of cockpit automation. 

However recent events have shown just how dangerous that can be.

Progress is not going backwards

Advanced pilot training… A Pilatus P6 Turbo Porter in the Baliem Valley of New Guinea. ( ♪ ~ | flickr.com CC BY 2.0)

Some things can’t be taught in a classroom and, unless these new pilots bring their own professional passion to work from Day One, the wisdom won through hauling medical supplies through Africa, pathology samples across Arizona, or anything at all into the New Guinea Highlands will be lost from the cockpit.  

They owe it to themselves and their passengers to understand the art and science of flying… To pursue it as a craft, not just a career. 

Regardless of advances in cockpit technology, propulsion systems or cruising speeds, the laws of physics and aerodynamics will be the same in 2020 as they were when Wilbur Wright stalled and spun the Wright Flyer on December 14th, 1903. 

And so, if aviation history has anything to tell the pilots of the 2020s, it’s that Air Canada Flight 143, United Airlines Flight 811, and US Airways Flight 1549 were all saved by sailplane pilots with a practiced understanding of lift and drag.

Tragically, many other recent accidents …were not.

Who’s flying the plane? The famed Gimli Glider – Air Canada Flight 143 – which was saved by the stick and rudder skills of Captain Bob Pearson in July 1983.

10 thoughts on “Future flight

  1. Very interesting indeed! If they can’t even get electric cars to run economically with enough plug-in sites, then how do they expect aircraft to travel vast distances in a similar way. The future will no doubt have changes but not as quickly, or dramatically, as some would perhaps like to believe.

    1. That is the bottom line, isn’t it? People who are trying to attract backers, or customers, are keen to make every innovation sound ‘just around the corner; whereas a closer look at the engineers who have to make these things work reveals a much extended timeline with baby steps the whole way along.
      Star Trek has pretty much proven we can have anything we imagine. Now that we have our advanced personal communication devices, for example, the 50 year wait seems less onerous.

  2. An excellent view through the looking glass. I especially appreciated the nod toward piloting skills — it puts you in the minority, you know. Most ‘experts’ are predicting future airplanes will pretty much fly themselves through all phases of operation, if they have pilots on board at all.

    Like you, I put my money on the next decade being one of incremental improvement in engine, airframe, and flight path efficiency. As the man said, follow they money, right? If we see a supersonic aircraft, it will probably be a business jet because those conveyances are not required to produce a profit; they are simply avenues for improved business efficiency. They’re also well suited to airframes which hold only a few people rather than one which can carry hundreds.

    Regarding NASA, they have long been hampered by the ever-changing political and budgetary winds. I’m not sure how that will affect their aeronautics initiatives, but it certainly hasn’t been kind to the space program.

    The future should be interesting, whatever it may bring. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a variation on the ancient Chinese curse… 🙂

    1. Absolutely, yes! I think we’re in for exciting times in aviation regardless, so let’s hope for plenty of nice, safe excitement’. …The Disney ride of progress, if you will.
      We’ve discussed SBJs before and you’ll get no argument from me as to where the supersonic money will go to/come from initially. Although I note that British Airways operated their Concorde fleet profitably for the last 15 years (give or take) of its service. That raises an interesting question for wide-body operators: If high yield customers can escape the madding crowds for a faster and more exclusive alternative, who will pay for the large, long-distance journeys? That burden will have to fall back on the budget travellers in Economy – which could raise the cost and exclusivity of air travel across the board…

  3. And as we have seen down on the ground, Pilot-less technology is far from perfected. Tesla’s have already killed as well as seriously injured people. I for one would NEVER be willing to place my life into the hands of mere technology, and especially if the person they were now calling “the Pilot” turned out to be someone who is merely a glorified “Systems Manager”! You simply cannot achieve that Utopian goal of removing “Human Error” by replacing the Pilot/Driver/Captain with computers. For who programs those computers? Humans! Yet these “innovators” continue to use that as their justification. Honestly, how many times throughout history has Man’s overweening pride in his so-called progress, gone before a fall of disastrous magnitude?! Unsinkable ship, anyone?! Or maybe, just maybe; I could teach a blind person to drive completely independently?!

    1. I’m going to answer this with gut feel rather than verifiable facts so, IMHO: There are two ways of looking at this argument. One says that, statistically at least, you are already more likely to be killed by a pilot’s mistake than anything the current crop of automation does. On the other hand, there’s an adage that an automated system will continue to perform its programmed task while the building burns down around it; whereas a human would ‘park’ that task and prioritise putting out the fire. So that’s a hell of a choice, isn’t it??
      As a driving instructor, you’re probably extra untrusting of having technology drive you around and, as an aviator, I’d feel the same way in an aircraft.
      Then again, I’m old enough to remember when ‘real men’ wouldn’t drive with an automatic transmission.
      Oh well. They probably won’t ask us first anyway! 🙂

      1. You are absolutely right in saying they won’t ask us first! They’ll go ahead and do it anyway, then TELL us it is for our own good and in the interests of our “Health and Safety”! But the good thing with “Health and Safety” is that it is an extremely long and drawn out process so thankfully, I probably won’t be around to be affected by it! (Or to be in a position to say “I told you so”!)

      2. Oh, I think that comes under the same category as a money back guarantee from your parachute packer. If it goes ear shaped, you definitely won’t be around to say “I told you so”.

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