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Strategic Trends in Aviation

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington

From the continued evolution in airframe design and new materials, to new engine and propulsion technologies, and the apparent demise of the jumbo jet as an air travel concept, thinking on aircraft manufacturing is in a renaissance phase. In this environment, the strategies and business models of manufacturers will increasingly be driven by how new technologies can provide additional opportunities to meet passenger and airline demands and continue to enhance the inflight experience.

These opportunities will continue to evolve to enable manufacturers to deliver and maintain aircraft in an increasingly connected, cost effective, and sustainability conscious manner. This article looks at some of the innovation taking place in aircraft technology and manufacture today, and the possible innovations of the next decade.

Growing Reliance on AI

Manufacturers are becoming increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate design, modelling, and testing of new airframe concepts. For example, AI technology is already used for the design of cabin partitions on planes to ensure strength with no additional weight.(1) Airlines, and to a lesser extent airports, will need to ensure that they are staying ahead of the curve in terms of understanding the functionality, benefits, and risks inherent in the use of such innovative technologies. This will also have implications for the type of talent that recruiters within the industry will need to be looking for.

Aircraft-as-a-Service

A major strategic thrust for aircraft manufacturers is likely to be the continued expansion into downstream activities. This could increasingly be underpinned by new data analytics driven services for airlines and airports – leveraging off the volumes of data being generated by every aircraft movement. Developing such recurring streams of income would transform their revenue models and risk profile.

Personal Air Transportation

The vision of personalised flight is a long-held dream for many in the aviation world, and technology is taking us closer to making it a reality. From flying cars, aerial taxis, and passenger drones, to personalised aircraft variants, the technology to produce such vehicles is close to market. A number have launched flying cars in the last few years with very limited commercial take up. However, companies such as Uber, Airbus, and BlackFly are now making significant investments and working on producing and marketing different forms of personal air transportation by 2020.(2) The launch of flying taxi services in both China and Dubai are also expected within two years.(3)

Folding Wings

Innovative folding wing tips have been included in the wing design of Boeing’s 777X aircraft.(4) The goal is to ensure that it can continue to use the current airport gate infrastructure at many airports around the world that are served by existing aircraft types such as the 777, 787 series, and even the Airbus A380. As a result, the new 777X can be categorized as an ICAO “code E” aircraft and thus eliminate the need for any gate or runway modifications.(5) The concept of innovative design to ensure compatibility with existing airport infrastructure minimises additional airport investment to accommodate advanced aircraft designs.

Commercial Supersonic Services

Supersonic aircraft could emerge as a widely available and viable transport mode by the mid-2020’s, opening up new segments to the industry and possibly heralding the entry of new players. New entrants such as Boom Technology, Aerion, and Spike, and existing players such as Boeing are working on developing the technology for premium and mass market air transportation.(6) With Boom hoping to launch by 2020, this raises the question of what infrastructure requirements are expected to serve a new generation of supersonic aircraft?

Biofuels

As passenger numbers continue to grow, airlines face an ever greater challenge of meeting emissions expectations, and this could be addressed through the use of renewable jet fuels.(7) The industry is likely to expand its renewable fuel commitments with bio-refineries to drive improvements in fuel cost and availability of these alternatives. Airports and aircraft manufacturers will need to work to develop efficient fuel delivery mechanisms, and ensure that emissions targets are met. To achieve its goals, the Air Transport Indusrty as a whole will need to work with government to ensure sufficient funding for ongoing fuel research and development, with a focus on developing low-cost feed stocks and improving refinery efficiency to meet the scale up demands of the sector.

Elimination of Turbulence and Noiseless Aviation

Air Travel could be free of turbulence in the future. Boeing is currently working on technology that can sense and therefore avoid turbulence.(8) Software analyses the velocity of the wind ahead and indicates the presence of clear air or turbulence ahead to the pilot.

Furthermore, reducing the level of aircraft noise could have a transformative impact on the relationship between airports and local residents. The Silent Aircraft Initiative from the Cambridge-MIT Institute has been established with the goal of making aviation virtually noiseless by 2030. Working with an airport, air traffic control, and local airlines, the project is using existing aircraft, and developing and flight testing an enhanced form of Continuous Descent Approaches (CDAs). These reduce noise and fuel burn by eliminating level segments, keeping aircraft higher for longer, and descending at near idle thrust.(9) For airports, this could potentially pave the way for extended operational flying hours.

Development of Electric Planes

EasyJet has announced it may have the technology ready by 2030 to deploy electric passenger planes, initially a 9-seater, for short distance flights.(10) The development of electrical aircraft could drastically change aircraft design and open opportunities for new entrants. It will also enable quieter operations, which will reduce noise pollution over the residential areas surrounding airports.

Capsules Transported by Carrier Aircraft

Planes that carry capsules containing people, freight, or fuel could provide scope for the same vehicle to perform multiple roles.(11) The capsules would be easily attached and detached from the airframe, allowing for very quick rotations on the ground.(12) Although its implementation may require new airport infrastructure, it could allow for streamlined boarding and aircraft turnaround.

The Future of Aircraft Technology

The future depends on the interactions between a variety of factors, from environment to consumer preferences, none of which we can actually predict. However, the amount of innovation and creativity now on display suggests that there is a renaissance of ideas which are defining the future of aviation technology.

 

References:

  1. https://www.autodesk.com/customer-stories/airbus Accessed 03/04/2019.
  2. https://www.compelo.com/flying-cars-uber-rolls-royce/ Accessed 03/04/2019.
  3. https://www.unmannedairspace.info/urban-air-mobility/urban-air-mobility-takes-off-63-towns-cities-worldwide/ Accessed 03/04/2019.
  4. https://www.designboom.com/technology/boeing-777x-foldable-wings-05-23-2018/ Accessed 03/04/2019.
  5. https://www.skybrary.aero/index.php/ICAO_Aerodrome_Reference_Code Accessed 03/04/2019.
  6. https://www.aerotime.aero/aerotime.team/22308-boom-aerion-spike-head-to-head-in-supersonic-jet-race Accessed 03/04/2019.
  7. https://www.greenaironline.com/news.php?viewStory=2504 Accessed 03/04/2019.
  8. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/could-new-technology-make-turbulence-a-thing-of-the-past/ Accessed 03/04/2019.
  9. http://silentaircraft.org/ Accessed 03/04/2019.
  10. https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-easyjet-ceo-electric/easyjet-expects-to-be-flying-electric-planes-by-2030-idUKKCN1N31PS Accessed 03/04/2019.
  11. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airbus-zodiac-aerospace-lower-deck-sleep-space/ Accessed 08/04/2019
  12. https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/clip-air-pod-airplane-concept/index.html Accessed 03/04/2019.

This article was published in FutureScapes. To subscribe, click here.

Image: https://pixabay.com/images/id-2648958/ by Absolute Vision

 

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