Imagining the Future of Flight
TE celebrated Orville Wright’s 150th birthday with a look at technology enabling innovation in aviation design.
Matt McAlonis, Engineering Fellow, Aerospace
As pioneers in aviation, Orville and his older brother Wilbur were the first to build and pilot a mechanically powered airplane: the famous two-wing “biplane.” While we’ve come a long way from fabric biplanes, the Wright brothers’ spirit of determination and high standards in engineering still guides today’s aviation visionaries as we continue to face complex challenges and make advancements in the field of flight.
Re-emerging from the global pandemic
The recent global pandemic hit the commercial air and supporting industries exceptionally hard. According to Cirium data, the global commercial jet fleet in January 2020 numbered nearly 25,000 aircraft; four months later, two-thirds of them were grounded. Strategies to deal with this challenge have included:
1. Providing additional inspection and maintenance to return thousands of grounded aircraft to service. Airplanes that have not flown for extended periods must be inspected for corrosion; weathering; dust; unwanted inhabitants, such as insects and nesting birds; and other environmental stressors that affect parked aircraft.1
2. Optimizing the cabin environment to promote passenger health means using established and new technologies, such as enhanced sanitation processes in passenger areas in between flights; continuing use of hospital-grade, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to mix approximately 50 percent filtered air with 50 percent outside air for up to 30 air changes per hour; and also employing new data models to optimize passenger seating and breathing zones.2
With more travelers returning to the skies, we are not only seeing an increase in fleet maintenance and passenger expectations for a cleaner cabin environment, but also an industry that is itching for further innovation.
Passenger connectivity developments
In 1903, the Wright brothers achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight. Back then, the big news was simply staying aloft.
Today, passengers expect access to the news and more with seamless connectivity to internet, social media and inflight entertainment (IFE). Connecting passengers requires:
1. Building aircraft with “back-end” systems that support wired and wireless interfaces so passengers can use their own device, regardless of operating system.
2. Supporting higher bandwidth by using high-speed cables and wiring, including fiber optic cables enabling gigahertz speeds to enable streaming video.
Sonic flight meets developments in sustainability
Nearly 20 years after the final flight of the Concorde, the renaissance of supersonic passenger jets that can enable travel twice as fast is intersecting with increasing concerns about the impact of air travel on the environment. The aviation innovators of today are responding with design engineering and sustainability advances that aim for zero carbon goals and include:
1. Formulating sustainable aviation fuels—such as biofuels and synthetic kerosene—to reduce carbon emissions and create “greener skies.”
2. Making aircraft lighter by using innovative materials and miniaturized electronics that help reduce weight and lower fuel cost and consumption. For every kilogram of jet fuel saved, 3.16 kilograms of CO2 emissions are eliminated.4
Just as electric vehicles are revolutionizing the automobile industry, electric aircraft can boost sustainability and enable the convenience of air travel. Flying above cities and suburbs avoids traffic snarls and using electric rotorcraft significantly reduces noise and CO2 emissions.
But designing practical urban-air/advanced-air mobility (UAM/AAM) “air taxis” or electric-powered vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles poses a new and complex set of challenges that include:
1. Navigating as low as 500 feet (150 meters) over 50-mile hops across a cityscape imposes new demands on air traffic control, sensor, data processing and connectivity. Transferring technologies from the defense-aviation industry—such as high-speed-switch-fabric backplanes and optical interconnects—can provide the immense bandwidth needed for autonomous UAM navigation.
2. Charging batteries for eVTOL and UAM/AAM aircraft must be done in minutes instead of hours to make commercial electric flight financially viable. Special cables, contactors and switches can handle high voltages, amperages and temperatures encountered during fast charging. Battery weight reduction, energy density and fast charging is ripe for innovation. Battery designs and formulations are being developed to deliver peak power for takeoffs and landings without adding excessive weight to the airframe—a tradeoff between weight and power well known to the Wright brothers.
According to the February/March 2021 EVTOL issue of Avionics digital magazine, air mobility companies raised $1.3 billion in additional private investment in 2020—an 80% increase over 2019.5
To Infinity and Beyond
Recently, we witnessed an entirely new era in aviation with the emergence of commercial space flight. It will be exciting to see how this new area of aviation evolves and how we can continue to innovate as the industry continues to scale.
Despite recent challenges, innovation in aviation continues with the kind of bold vision for connecting aircraft with more efficient and sustainable technologies that would make the Wright brothers proud.
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