Flying has fascinated us since way back when and has inspired endless ingenuity. We venture a look at what the next 20 years might bring.
It is the year 1962. In the U.S., a new comic series has just been launched – literally: “The Jetsons” is about a family in the future, basically right on the other end of the timescale from the stone-age saga “The Flintstones.” The hero of “The Jetsons” is George, an office worker who travels to work on a folding flying saucer. Although this vivid utopia is now 56 years old, its technology has failed to materialize. Not yet, at least. All around the world, scientists are working on the future of flying, on tomorrow’s travel – and even on flying vehicles for family men. In their minds, humans are already hurtling through the air in transparent pods at five times the speed of sound. In reality, though, innovation is taking shape out of sight, soundlessly behind cabin walls, in aircraft fuel tanks and in a wealth of detail. What we dismiss in disbelief today will be entirely normal 20 years from now.
Supersonic travel with no magic involved
Have breakfast in New York, lunch in Abu Dhabi and attend an evening gala in Sydney… is this even possible? Fly at supersonic speed and the answer is yes. The most successful attempt at supersonic air travel was made by the legendary Concorde. Nearly 62 meters long and seating 100 passengers, it was the largest supersonic aircraft ever to take off. Economically, though, it was unviable and ceased operations in 2003. Speed is nevertheless essential in the business world. “That’s why we will be boarding supersonic jets again in Frankfurt for New York in 20 years, crossing the Atlantic in just three or four hours,” says Volker Gollnick, Director of the Institute for Air Transportation Systems at the Hamburg University of Technology TUHH. These planes will not be as large as Concorde, but Gollnick thinks there is a market for smaller models. The first prototypes could be in the air long before 2038: U.S. companies Aerion and Boom Technology are going head to head in the development contest. Next year, Boom expects to commence test flights with a prototype. The two-seater XB-1, nicknamed “Baby-Boom,” will fly at more than twice the speed of sound – as fast as a jet. Later, says the company, there will be a bigger brother, with space for 55 passengers. Rival Aerion is collaborating with Airbus on a 12-seater, which they hope to begin testing in 2021. This jet would be slower than the Boom model but wouldn’t require an afterburner (the technology that sealed Concorde’s fate), says Aerion boss Doug Nichols. Noise remains a critical factor: Even Concorde was not permitted to fly overland at supersonic speeds due to the supersonic boom. Things will be no different 20 years from now, Gollnick believes, making supersonic jets unsuitable for mass transportation.
Hybrid: kerosene and electricity
Electric aircraft could make air travel greener. The California startup Wright Electric has announced that it is building an e-plane for around 150 passengers, scheduled to fly from 2027; by 2040, the state-owned Norwegian airport authority Avinor is demanding all airlines to operate only emission-free short-haul flights by 2040. Arne Seitz is skeptical: “The batteries will still be big, heavy and expensive,” says the expert for energy technologies and propulsion systems at the Bauhaus Luftfahrt research institution. “We probably won’t be seeing fully electric propulsion in the coming two decades except in niche products like short-haul air taxis.” But he can very well imagine seeing a smaller hybrid plane take to the air with a kerosene fueled gas turbine on board that drives a generator. Small electric engines could conceivably improve aerodynamics by having several propellers on each wing. Large aircraft with more than 100 seats, says Seitz, will have to continue to rely on conventional jet engines. “If we want to achieve the industry’s climate goals, what we need are synthetic fuels,” explains his colleague Andreas Sizmann, who heads Future Technologies and Ecology at Bauhaus Luftfahrt. He thinks that aircraft could run on fuel produced from water and carbon dioxide with the help of renewable electricity or concentrated sunlight just as they do on conventional fuel now. “But such fuels will only be sustainable if the carbon-dioxide needed for production comes from the atmosphere,” says Sizmann. This should be possible using filter systems, initial designs for which look like giant washing machines. However, the proportion of synthetic fuel used would also depend on the oil price and on the relevant national policies, Sizmann warns. “This is why engine technology needs to become even more efficient,” adds Seitz. In concrete terms, this could mean combining turbines with piston engines like in automobiles. “That kind of engine could save fuel by up to 12 percent,” says Seitz.
Parts on demand with 3D printing
It’s probably every aircraft manufacturer’s dream: Press a button and a ready-made plane rolls off the 3D printer just a few hours later. That scenario is still a long way off and most of today’s components are still milled or cast because 3D printers cannot process every material. The most common practice in the aviation industry is to produce components using metal or plastic powder that is melted by a laser beam according to a digital template, with the material hardening layer by layer. The advantage: These components are just as strong but have less mass, which is why they are so popular in the industry. Reduced weight means reduced fuel, fewer emissions and lower costs. Almost all aircraft manufacturers employ 3D-printed components in their aircraft, in the cabin or in the engine. The Airbus A350, for instance, contains more than 1000 printed parts, such as plastic brackets. 3D-printed components made of metal, like the borescope eyepieces made by engine manufacturer MTU Aero Engines, are still rare. The tiny apertures in the engine cowling enable visual inspections. “We expect that between 15 and 30 percent of all engine components could be 3D-printed 20 years from now,” says Karl-Heinz Dusel, Head of Rapid Technologies at MTU Aero Engines. GE Aviation is currently testing an engine for which one third of the components have been produced by so-called additive manufacturing. But due to cost considerations, printing ready-made aircraft will probably not be possible even 40 years from now.
One ticket for everything
The plane is due to take off in only 15 minutes, but the security checkpoint blocks the frantic passenger’s path. Mercilessly. Implacably. At the front of the line, someone tries to cram 25 tins of hand cream into a small plastic bag. Body scanner, final call, we’re cutting it really close now … This is what things used to be like. In the future, sensors and cameras will automate processes at the airport so that they are almost unnoticeable. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) imagines a kind of tunnel for passengers to pass through with their hand baggage. Regional airports, which can be built closer to urban areas because the aircraft are quieter, might even dispense with check-in counters and baggage conveyors entirely. Passengers would board their plane with their luggage much as they would a bus. New technology and more streamlined procedures could save quite a bit of time, in fact. But just how the airports will get passengers to their gates faster without ruining their own business by endangering the shops and restaurants en route, is another matter entirely. At large airports, automated systems would load luggage more efficiently and major hubs could introduce a plane-on-demand system to reduce traffic and shorten the time on the ground. Airlines would no longer own their own planes but would rent them as required. “Initial studies show that about 20 percent fewer aircraft could fulfill the same task,” says Dr. Kay Plötner, Head of Economy and Traffic, who developed the system at Bauhaus Luftfahrt with his colleagues.
By 2038, our in-flight experience will also become more interactive. Augmented reality (AR) technology could enable our windows to tell us what we’re flying over down below. Free Internet above the clouds would be standard, and passengers would enjoy a personalized entertainment program on their own electronic devices, rendering in-seat screens redundant. Data analysis would make it possible to seat passengers beside others who share the same interests. Cabin interiors are unlikely to change very much since the available space will remain the same. Another idea, still very much in its infancy, is a universal seat that the crew can convert into whatever is needed in a particular cabin class. Business to economy at the flick of a switch? To get where they’re going, the passengers of the future will only need a single, automatic ticket for all modes of transportation, including air taxis, which will quickly transport them – seated or standing – from the airport to the city, where they will land in open areas on specially built platforms or the roofs of tall buildings. And that takes us right back to the world of George Jetson. And it also makes one thing certain: Much of what we regard as “cloud cuckoo land” today will be standard issue in 2038. The skies of tomorrow will be a very different world.