Some of the most important adaptations in the history of manned flight occurred in the back of an Ohio bicycle shop in 1896. While R&D has become somewhat more complex since the Wright Brothers’ time, the underlying principle remains the same: innovation is the beating heart of the aerospace industry.
With many customers now willing to look beyond the price of a ticket, particularly on long-haul flights, airlines are investing heavily in efficiency, sustainability and cutting-edge technologies to set themselves apart. Here, The New Economy considers five of the most important changes that could shape commercial aviation in the not-so-distant future.
In a world where air travel makes up between four and nine percent of all man-made greenhouse gases, it is more important than ever to find sustainable ways to propel people through the air. One of the most exciting solutions is electric-powered flight, which sees loud, gas-guzzling jet engines replaced with clean, quiet motors.
Photon-powered planes, such as the Solar Impulse craft that flew around the world last year, have been promising, yet are still too rudimentary to be viable in the short term. For now, battery-powered aircraft offer more realistic remedies. In April, a company called Zanum Aero unveiled plans for a battery-powered commercial jet that is backed by both Boeing and JetBlue Ventures, and should yield a working hybrid prototype by 2020.
Meanwhile, an even more conservative solution to the industry’s carbon conundrum is biofuel, which is not limited by battery storage concerns. In 2012, Dutch airline KLM successfully sent a bio-powered plane on a 6,000-mile journey between Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro. Although biofuel has not been applied to commercial air travel yet, it certainly could be, with only a few adjustments to existing engine designs.
Even though new types of aeroplane are rapidly emerging, there is nothing to stop innovation within classic models as well. One of the most exciting trends in the aviation sector is the move towards smart materials, which have the potential to cut fuel consumption, boost aerodynamics and make planes faster by giving them stronger, lighter bodywork.
In the long term, graphene is the most exciting of such prospects. At just one atom thick, this modern super metal was discovered at the University of Manchester in 2004 when two scientists isolated it by peeling away layers of graphite. Their Nobel Prize-winning creation has applications everywhere, including in planes, where it can be used to line wings and prevent them taking on water: a job that heavier carbon fibre and fibre resins are currently tasked with.
Since 2013, there have been efforts by US regulators to end the prohibition on mobile phone use on planes
Still, graphene remains a long way off, meaning that more conventional solutions may be better in the short term. One of the best examples is Boeing’s Microlattice, which is a light, flexible yet extremely strong material that can be used in non-structural parts of the plane such as seats and interior environments. Rather than being a solid metal, it is made of many strands of hollow tubes and is, Boeing says, 99 percent air. As such, the Microlattice is capable of both protecting an egg from a 25-storey drop and sitting on top of a dandelion without breaking the seeds…