The future of commercial aviation: Viewing platforms and self-healing wings

Millions of passengers fly all around the world every single day, yet we almost take for granted that we are actually travelling thousands of kilometres in a matter of hours. The progress of commercial aviation in the past hundred years has been unequalled and by the year 2050, the aviation industry will have increased seven-fold. The future of commercial aviation will see improvements in carbon emissions due to innovative design and increased energy efficiency. Our travel experience will be unparalleled. Think fully automated check-ins, airport sleeping pods and augmented reality airplane windows.

Finding solutions to minimise our carbon footprint

In order to make the aviation industry greener, we will need to electrify commercial aviation. The ideal situation would be sourcing energy from sustainably fuelled power stations. If we want electric flights to become mainstream, we’ll need better batteries which can deliver an incredible amount of power. These batteries also need to be safer, smaller and lighter than lithium-ion batteries – the ones that currently power our electric cars, phones and laptops. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have already invented batteries that can hold twice as much energy as the lithium-ion variety in our phones.  If we can reduce the weight of these batteries, the impact on flying range and energy savings will be significant.

The heavier a plane is the more fuel it needs. The drive for improved aerodynamic performance and increased fuel efficiency of new aircraft is one of the reasons why designers are moving away from aluminium. Instead, airplane design of the future will rely on lightweight fibre composites; woven mats of carbon fibre, embedded in plastic. The material is incredibly strong for its weight and a decrease of only one kilogram of weight already translates to huge savings over the life of an aeroplane. Carbon fibre also makes completely different design shapes possible. This could dramatically impact an aircraft’s lift-to-drag ratio, making it much more aerodynamically efficient and reducing its overall weight.

The shape of things to come

Since the first commercial flights roughly 100 years ago, aeroplanes have not changed shape. With the high fuel costs, overcrowded air space and air pollution, however, aircraft of the future will need to make significant adaptations to their current designs. Here’s a few examples of what airplanes of the future may look like.

NASA’s futuristically shaped planes

When it comes to futuristically shaped aircrafts, NASA is definitely leading the way. Their aim is to revolutionise the airspace, its vehicles and their operations as well as safety and environmental impact. In order to make the aeroplanes more aerodynamic, NASA has designed a plane with a body built into the wings, which in turn are spread over a larger surface area. Its turbo-electric engines emit less CO2, use half of the fuel of tubular aeroplanes, produce less noise pollution and provide a quieter ride for its passengers. Although the winged aeroplane provides extra lift – because there’s no tail – it also becomes less stable. The hybrid flying wing is only one of NASA’s environmentally responsible aviation pilot projects. It commenced in 2009, with the aim to reduce aviation’s impact on the environment.

The Sky Whale makes the Airbus A380 look like a midget

Concept aircraft the Sky Whale, developed by Spanish industrial designer Oscar Viñals, would make the Airbus A380 – the biggest passenger airplane ever to fly the skies – look like a midget in comparison. With its three passenger decks, which all have their own incredible viewing platforms, it looks like a cross between a space shuttle and a tropical fish. The Sky Whale promises to reduce drag, aircraft noise and fuel consumption. Because its engines are designed to swivel, the Sky Whale has more power to take off, making it possible to keep the length of its runway at under 4000 meter. The Sky Whale would be built from advanced new materials made up of fibre or ceramic composites. It would boast advanced, active, self-healing wings which are powered by a hybrid turbo-electric propulsion system as well as micro solar cells. Even though the design is not entirely feasible yet, the engineering components are already possible.

Will we be seeing fully automated airport processes with biometrics?

Our check-in processes are becoming increasingly automated. We can already check in online, but the self-service element that makes our flying experience more streamlined will be reaching new heights in the next couple of years. Many airports have already installed technology which makes it possible to drop of your baggage without any assistance from check-in personnel. Plans to automate these processes to the point where there is no human interaction until the passenger boards the plane are already in development. Then there’s biometrics technology, which is already used at various airports around the globe. With this technology, information from digital fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition is collected to identify passengers. Biometrics technology is very useful in the day-to-day operations of an airport; it can improve passenger experience and increase security.

Blue digital screen with iris scanner

Sleeping pods for that all important beauty sleep

The sight of travellers sprawled out across aisles and chairs is gradually becoming a thing of the past as the futuristic phenomenon of sleeping pods is taking root at airports around the world. From reclining cocoon chairs to luxury beds; the pods come in various shapes and sizes. Most of them offer charging stations, luggage space, clothing hangers, pillows and blankets while some luxury variations even boast king size beds, flat screen TVs, multi-media touch screens and up-to-the-minute flight information. Other, even more luxurious pods have rain showers, room service, fridges, mood lighting, toiletries and audio-tracks for guided power naps! The pods can be rented per hour – up to 24 hours. Some airports offer the pods on a first-come first-serve basis, while others allow you to book the pods online so that you are guaranteed a space for your beauty sleep. Sleeping pods can be found at several major airports such as in Abu Dhabi, Munich, Hanoi, London, Amsterdam, New Delhi and various airports throughout the US.

See also: The future of air forces is big data

Replacing real windows with augmented views of the world

Airlines have already come to the conclusion that windows cause drag and windowless cabins are among the numerous innovations proposed by airlines. Removing the windows could reach enhanced speed and so the future of commercial aviation may well see the small oblong airplane windows replaced by interactive cabin ‘window’ systems. These systems could function as screens which curve around the cabin interior, displaying information via outside cameras about places the aircraft passes en route. The screens could also be used for presentations or to display movies. Besides, with aeroplanes like the Sky Whale boasting viewing platforms to marvel at the views of the world, who needs cabin windows?

Pilotless flights

With the widespread use of drones, introducing pilotless aeroplanes won’t be a technical issue at all. The challenge really revolves around public perception and acceptance and getting passengers used to the idea. In fact, aeroplanes already pretty much fly themselves. Did you know that a pilot flies a plane for literally only three minutes per flight? The rest of the flight is automated. But passengers want a person in that cockpit; someone who monitors the flight and takes charge if something goes wrong. However, with the potential savings, the possibility of pilotless flights is unlikely to completely disappear off the radar.

Video credits: ArmedForcesUpdate

Conclusion

With our overcrowded skies and skyrocketing fuel prices, we will need to adapt at least some, if not all of our current aircraft designs. The future of commercial aviation is one of innovation and cutting edge designs with the objective of minimising our carbon footprint and decreasing costs.

 

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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