The Future of Aviation

How technology and relaxed regulation are kindling an aviation design renaissance.

Flying along the Atlantic Coast recently I glimpsed the future of aviation without even realizing it at the time.

Enjoying my unique view of the sunlight glimmering on the waves as they pounded the sandy beaches below, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a traffic target on my DiamondStar’s Garmin G1000 flight display. I looked right and spotted a Mooney approaching the coast from the west at about my altitude. I could tell from our converging flight paths that we would both probably end up in roughly the same spot if neither of us altered course.

I started a shallow descent and kept an eye on the other airplane. As my nose dropped and the altitude tape slowly began to unwind, I received a traffic alert from the G1000 system. It was followed almost simultaneously by a terrain alert as a portion of the ocean on my synthetic-vision flight display turned an ominous shade of red.

Cool, I thought, satisfied that the safety systems in my airplane were doing their jobs.

There was no real danger, of course. I knew my actions were prudent and safe. I leveled off at 500 feet as the other airplane zipped overhead and banked left to fly up the coast in the opposite direction.

My airplane, however, wasn’t so sure about the wisdom of my actions. It was telling me that the experience was frightening.

I didn’t think about it again until long after the flight was over and the airplane was back in the hangar, but it suddenly dawned on me that we have started creating airplanes that not only are intelligent but which also have personalities all their own and can even inform us about their emotional state. Just as an uneasy passenger sensing danger might tense up in the right seat, the airplane can also tell us when it is feeling scared.

It’s the same with the latest automobiles, which can warn us if we stray out of our lane on the highway and even apply the brakes for us if we’re in ­imminent danger of having an accident. Airplanes today are being designed with similar technologies. For example, Garmin’s ESP (electronic stability and protection) system built into its newest cockpits will gently nudge the flight controls when we’re hand-flying should we give the airplane cause for worry, such as getting too slow on the base-to-final turn.

We’re just scratching the surface of what we can accomplish with intelligent, intuitive airplanes. And really that’s one reason why there has never been a better time to be an aircraft designer. Nearly everything that we as pilots are concerned with while flying — the avionics, the flight controls, our sources of propulsion, even the fundamental shape of the machines we fly — holds the very real possibility of changing and evolving in dramatic ways as the technology driving the design of future aircraft races inexorably forward.

The young technologists and engineers of today will play a major role in this transformation. Of course, there’s no way of knowing for certain how aviation will evolve and change in the next 20 years, or even what amazing technology might become available in the intervening time. Recognizing that the pace of change will only accelerate, the FAA, with input from the aviation industry, is rewriting light aircraft certification rules to give designers more flexibility in how they create tomorrow’s airplanes and systems — what’s known as the Part 23 rewrite. The changes, if successful, will make it easier and less costly to bring new technologies quickly to the market, all while improving safety.

The following is a look at several of the ways in which flying in the future might be a significantly different experience than it is today.

In the future pilots might wear their avionics rather than stare at the instrument panel. Google Glass holds early promise for such a transition.|

Wearable Avionics

From Google Glass to Garmin’s new D2 pilot watch, we’re beginning to get a preview of the trend toward wearable electronics that very well could transform the whole experience of how we fly in the future.

Some pilots have already started using Google Glass — a miniaturized computer that the wearer dons like a pair of eyeglasses — for a number of flight-related functions, including completing electronic checklists, viewing charts and maps, and calling up weather information.

The next step would be to employ technology that can sense the position of the wearer’s head. This would allow a wearable head-mounted display to become an indispensible cockpit resource, permitting, for example, the traffic collision avoidance system to call out a target at 9 o’clock that the pilot could electronically highlight on the display by turning his head left. Linked with a full database of Jeppesen nav data or a ForeFlight subscription integrated into the flight management system, a head-mounted display could potentially take over where the iPad or Android tablet leaves off.

Likewise, Garmin’s D2 watch is an early first step that will undoubtedly lead to improved capabilities in future wearable avionics. There’s no reason to think that the cockpit of the future will need an instrument panel at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Future manufacturing techniques that take advantage of new nanotechnology materials such as graphene — an extremely thin layer of graphite that is many times stronger than steel while enabling far better conductivity of electricity than copper — could lead to the creation of super-thin wearable avionics that have the ability to bend and flex to fit around a wearer’s wrists or thighs.

As autonomous aircraft evolve, the airport of the future will need to become more automated as well, allowing UAVs and traditional crewed aircraft to mix.|

In-flight Connectivity

Airline passengers have embraced in-flight Internet connectivity in a big way, but there still aren’t many good options in general aviation for pilots to access data in flight. An ADS-B link can broadcast weather, TFRs and other information to the cockpit, but it’s a one-way pipe to the airplane. In the future, connectivity will allow for nearly instantaneous streaming of all sorts of data to and from the airplane, with a multitude of apps specifically tailored for pilots to use in flight.

Aircell currently offers the most popular in-flight Internet service, which broadcasts data over a nationwide network of ground towers. The trouble is, the hardware needed to access the service is prohibitively expensive for most of us. The company’s ATG 2000 hardware and antenna equipment package enables connections to Aircell’s Gogo Biz Internet service, but the system retails for $45,000.

Still, as the demand for accessing data rises, Aircell or somebody else will offer in-flight services with hardware pricing that’s more palatable to the typical general aviation pilot. Once the data pipeline between the airplane and the rest of the Internet opens, the possibilities for what we can do with data in the cockpit are as broad as our imaginations.

**The Fully Automated Airplane **

Believe it or not, there is a whole generation of young people who would love to own a personal airplane but who have little or no interest in learning to fly. To satisfy demand from this new breed of traveler, futurists dream of airplanes that will fly themselves with minimal input from their occupants. Rather than planning a flight, checking weather and attending to all the other duties of pilot-in-command, the operators of these future aircraft will simply hop in the front seat, press a few buttons (or merely speak to the flight computer) to input the desired destination and then kick back while the virtual pilot does all the flying.

It’s hard to imagine what level of understanding of aerodynamics or aviation rules and regulations the operator of such a futuristic airplane would be required to possess, but for this concept to work the answer quite probably would have to be very little to none. After all, a “pilot” who is so far removed from the decision-making processes and the actual hands-on flying of the airplane shouldn’t be depended on to take over in an emergency. Instead, these future general aviation airplanes will be little more than passenger-carrying UAVs.

In such cases, trained pilots on the ground could be given access to the airplane’s controls through a secure datalink connection, enabling the remote operator to take over — for a fee, of course. It’s similar to a concept now being debated in the airline world, where future Boeing and Airbus jetliners would have only one pilot physically on board the airplane with ground-based copilots available to step in as needed.

We may not like the idea, but as we’ve seen in the UAV world, such operations are already possible. And autonomous cars, of course, are coming too. As the technology evolves and matures to include autoland, autothrottle and autotaxi capabilities, there’s no reason why Cirrus or Cessna (or Icon or Pipistrel) 20 years from now might not start offering a cockpit as optional equipment.

The Fully Automated Airport

If we can agree that some airplanes in the future will be 100 percent automated, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that airports will become fully automated as well. In fact, if UAVs take over cargo-carrying duties from human crews as many in the industry believe is all but inevitable, airports will need to be far more automated than they are now since it won’t do much good for a controller to tell a pilotless airplane to turn right at the next taxiway.

In the future, automated airport management will control scheduling, aircraft and vehicle separation, taxi routes, and all the other tedious and error-prone tasks that today are handled by humans. It’s conceivable that as large airline hubs transition to full automation, even many smaller airports will start adopting some automation tools.

It stands to reason that fully ­automated airplanes and UAVs will rely on some level of surface automation to get around safely on the ground. The technology to accomplish full airport automation already exists. All that’s needed to make it a reality is a large number of unmanned aircraft mingling with regular traffic — and perhaps a greater willingness on the part of air traffic controllers to begin surrendering some of their turf.

Voice Command

Voice control software is improving all the time. The technology has improved so much in the last few years, in fact, that the latest smartphones require no training to understand their owners, even speakers with heavy accents.

There’s no reason to think voice control won’t come to the cockpit sooner or later. In the early stages, we’ll probably use voice command only for non-flight-critical tasks — such as controlling the brightness of the flight displays. But as pilots become more familiar with voice control and our confidence in the technology grows, it’s entirely possible we’ll be telling the flight computers where we want to go or what we want to do next rather than inputting our commands through soft keys or touch pads.

Researchers are studying all sorts of alternative energy sources, from battery power in this E-Fan concept from Airbus to biofuel, hydrogen and solar.|

Alternative Energy

There’s no question the days of 100LL are numbered as the EPA, spurred on by environmental groups, seeks to outlaw leaded aviation gasoline. So what will we fill our tanks with in the future? A better question might be, will we have “tanks” at all? Maybe the future of aviation will depend on lithium-polymer batteries and solar arrays. Perhaps it will be hydrogen. Or, as some researchers believe, our future fuel sources could come from something we can’t even imagine because it hasn’t been invented yet.

For example, graphene, the carbon-based wonder substance we mentioned earlier, might be the key to building longer-lasting, faster-charging batteries as thousands of layers of the substrate material are laid one atop the other to create a super-lightweight, energy-dense power cell.

Jet-A-burning diesel engines are also coming on strong, and there appears to be little doubt that compression ignition power will have a place in aviation’s future. Shell, meanwhile, says it has come up with a lead-free alternative to low-lead avgas, which the FAA will begin testing soon.

On the electric-airplane front, Airbus recently completed the first test flight of its E-Fan demonstrator, a one-seat craft with an endurance of about 20 minutes. It might not seem like much of a breakthrough, but the company projects that the research might one day lead to an electric-hybrid airliner. Meanwhile, the FAA’s Part 23 rewrite is being specifically crafted to make allowances for future electric airplanes.

The flying car never really got off the ground, but roadable aircraft such as the PAL-V gyrocopter are showing promise.|

Roadable Aircraft

How long have aviation visionaries been dreaming about flying cars? So long that they’re not called flying cars anymore. Now they’re “roadable aircraft.” And while the chances for success of roadables such as the ­Terrafugia Transition are still dubious at best, that doesn’t mean the concept of the flying vehicle is dead. We might just need to come at the problem from a different direction.

One such novel approach is the PAL-V (personal air land vehicle), a sort of flying motorcycle conceived in Europe that converts from a road-going three-wheeler into a gyrocopter that appears to fly as well as it drives — which is to say very well in both regards. Where the Transition and other proposed flying cars have suffered from a lack of lateral stability in flight and mechanical complexity on the ground, the PAL-V flies as well as any gyrocopter you’re likely to see and, thanks to its ingenious suspension system, drives like one of the best three-wheel motorcycles to hit the streets.

The Dutch company behind the project has completed initial testing of the PAL-V One prototype, confirming a range through the air of up to 275 nautical miles at a cruise speed of 95 knots. The company recently announced it will begin production of the PAL-V with a limited run of 45 vehicles priced at around $400,000 apiece. First deliveries in Europe are expected in 2016.

So while the flying car might not have a place in aviation’s immediate future, perhaps a flying, three-wheeled gyrocopter will.

Aerodynamics Breakthroughs

The basics of aerodynamics have been well understood for many decades, but that isn’t stopping researchers from trying to come up with radical new ideas that could profoundly change what future airplanes look like and how they fly.

Blended wing bodies, ­morphing airfoils and active flow-control aerodynamics are all concepts at the leading edge of current research — though it is unclear which if any of these far-flung advanced ideas will catch on in the mainstream of aviation design.

NASA has been testing all manner of advanced designs, even ­going so far as to pursue quiet supersonic technology that would permit future business jets to fly at speeds well above Mach 1 even over populated landmasses.

Active flow control, meanwhile, is an aerodynamics concept whereby airflow over and around an airfoil is altered without changing the physical shape of the wing, such as by deploying flaps or slats. Active flow control involves the manipulation of a flow field — such as by blowing air in a sweeping motion along the span of a lifting surface — to improve the aerodynamic performance of an aircraft structure. Researchers say active flow control can enable the design of simpler, smaller and more aerodynamically efficient structures to reduce aircraft weight, drag and fuel consumption.

NASA researchers are using active flow control, whereby airflow is purposely swirled, to improve the aerodynamics of future aircraft.|

Reduced Cost

Much of what the Part 23 rewrite is attempting to accomplish is centered on giving designers the freedom to create products that cost less to certify and produce while also offering enhanced safety. Relaxing some of the rigidity of aircraft certification rules that were conceived and written many decades ago will allow aircraft makers to keep pace with the unceasing march of technology without having to spend millions of dollars to bring new products to the market.

The benefit of this new way of thinking should be avionics and airplanes that cost less to purchase. From a competitive standpoint, that might put legacy GA airplanes like the Cessna Skyhawk and Piper Archer in the difficult position of having to compete with newer, more capable models that cost many tens of thousands of dollars less, but that’s the trade-off of changing how airplanes are certified.

The alternative — doing nothing and living with the status quo — isn’t an option. Even the well-established manufacturers realize that general aviation is doomed to failure if we don’t update our thinking for the 21st century. That’s why all GA manufacturers have gotten behind the Part 23 rewrite. There might be some short-term losers, but the coming changes will set the stage for a renaissance in aviation design.

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