Hybrid-electric airliners, flying cars and space tourism to the Moon. TIM ROBINSON asks whether innovation in aerospace is now accelerating us towards a Jetsons-style future.  

Back to the future? Has aerospace technology slowed down since the 50s and 60s? (Wikipedia)

Go to any tech conference these days and it is a fair bet that some presenter will mention the increasing rate of change and rapid innovation we are now facing – a cliché familiar to many. Exponential change, they will claim, is transforming our lives in ways we cannot imagine and it is speeding up thanks to the Internet and digital transformation of our lives.

To those in aerospace, looking back with perhaps a longer memory, are we really accelerating faster than our immediate ancestors, when someone who was alive at the time of Wright brothers first flight, may have also witnessed Armstrong stepping down from a ladder onto the Moon a mere 66 years later? Some 48 years on from the crowning glory of Apollo – some might argue we are going backwards – Mach 3 spyplanes and Mach 2 airliners are retired, along with the Space Shuttle reusable space plane and humans are still stuck in LEO. This year, for example Boeing will deliver the first 737 MAX – an updated (and highly efficient) variant of an aircraft that this week celebrated its 50th birthday. (And ironically, this single-aisle airliner, with a cabin cross-section of the 1950s era 707 will be used by Norwegian for transatlantic flights. So much for progress then).

And yet, while in the recent years the roll-outs of the 787, A350, F-35 and the conservative re-engining of the A320 and 737s have led some industry observers to glumly predict a decade of Paris and Farnborough airshows looking at the same aircraft – there are recent signs that we are entering a new golden age of aerospace innovation – where no idea is too fanciful. 

A new golden age?

Boeing is investing in Zunum Aero - a start-up working on hybrid-electric airliners. (Zunum Aero) 

Two examples to start off with. Last week there came the news that Airbus has ditched its E-Fan electric light aircraft project - a blow for those who dreamed of a green, zero-emission trainer. Yet it has not axed it completely – but refocused on E-Fan X – a larger hybrid electric aircraft and a more ambitious target on the road to a 100-seat green airliner. Simply put, Airbus has decided that hybrid technology is now moving so fast, an ‘electric Cessna’ could be obsolete as soon as it enters service. For proof – Airbus is now working on at least three VTOL autonomous ‘flying car’ concepts that, if successful, could fundamentally disrupt the GA sector and transform urban mobility. It is not alone. As well as China’s eHang, Google’s Larry Page and Uber are all working on ‘flying car’ projects – which only a few years ago would be seen as a ‘giggle’ story from a crackpot inventor at a major airshow.

Example two comes from Boeing. It already has its own in-house R&D arm in Phantom Works to develop advanced technology – but last week it announced it was forming HorizonX – a new innovation cell to discover and invest in disruptive technology. Two initial start-ups it is funding are in augmented reality and hybrid electric airliners. Again – Boeing here is not alone – recently another start-up Wright Electric revealed plans for a hybrid electric regional airliner that it believes could fly between London and Paris in only ten years.     

Airbus and Boeing are not alone either in legacy aerospace companies air finding ways to leverage digital transformation and embrace innovation. Normally conservative BAE Systems, for instance, foresees ‘growing’ UAVs in vats aboard a mothership, or using ‘atmospheric lensing’ to increase the range of sensors or even as a deflector shield. Its latest concept is in used ‘hairs’ as micro-sensors. It is also worth noting, that BAE, having invested in Reaction Engines – has a fast track to what might be the most revolutionary propulsion since the jet engine.  

Even airlines, such as Ryanair, easyJet and JetBlue now have their own tech labs to nuture and investigate innovation – whether it is new IT systems or drones to inspect aircraft after maintenance.

Meanwhile, in the US, NASA is set to fly a new generation of X-planes to investigate supersonic passenger flight, distributed electric power systems and more.       


Conflict drives innovation, too 

Will DARPA's Gremlins and other swarming drone projects prove game-changers? (DARPA)

War and conflict is another driver for innovation in aerospace. Witness 3D printed UAVs being used on the front line in Ukraine and consumer quadcopter drones being turned into precision strike platforms by ISIS. In the US, trials with air-dropped swarms of mini-UAVs and DARPA’s Gremlins programme herald a new way of war, in which tiny drones will work together to overwhelm the enemy. Indeed, while high-end UCAVs such as the US Navy’s UNCLASS (turned into a tanker) and the Anglo-French FCAS (a decade of development ahead) have entered the slow lane, it is worth asking whether or not swarming drones are complimentary to stealth UCAVs or whether they make them obsolete?

Finally we have space – now being rapidly unlocked by private enterprise and new entrants. Only last month Elon Musk’s SpaceX performed a historic feat of delivering a satellite into orbit using a recycled rocket – a huge step on the way to reducing costs to space. In only 2018 SpaceX plans to fly two space tourists around the Moon and back – the first manned deep space mission since Apollo 17.

Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos believes that he will be flying crewed commercial suborbital flights into space in 2018 using his New Shepard rocket – a remarkably short time given Virgin Galactic’s slow progress with what once was considered the ‘low-risk’ route to space tourism.    

This progress, now bearing fruit, suddenly means that previously highly ambitious ideas, now seem possible. Musk’s vision of colonising the Red Planet last year may have drawn gasps – but does anyone now underestimate him? The new US President, with a taste for TV ratings and big headlines, might also be tempted to direct NASA to manned missions with an ambitious goal – such as a return to the Moon.

Even exploration missions to other stars within a single human lifetime, a science fiction fantasy now seem feasible with Breakthrough Starshot’s concept revealed last year to beam swarms computer-chip sized nano probes to Alpha Centauri using giant lasers and sails. There are of course many obstacles to this concept, but the miniaturisation of electronics, and the increasing power of lasers suggest that it is technically possible.


Some grounds for caution

Supersonic passenger flight awaits - if you have the right engine. (Boom Aerospace)

Yet before everyone starts booking holidays to the Moon – a sober reality check is in order. Silicon Valley whizz-kids may sneer that it is about time that the aerospace sector has discovered the riches of venture start-ups and the tech industry (it is notable, for instance, that the SpaceX and Blue Origin are both headed by children of the Apollo generation – who made fortunes in IT but now seem intent to be reclaiming a lost future). Yet there are very good reasons why aviation and aerospace, outside of war, proceeds cautiously. Buggy software that crashes your PC, laptop or smartphone is one thing, but rebooting critical avionics systems, at night, in a storm at 30,000ft is another. Innovation then, will have to proceed hand-in-hand with safety. (Although for some enterprises, such as human space exploration or space tourism – different risk factors may be in play (and like summiting Everest, could well be part of the appeal).

Noted aerospace analyst and commentator Richard Abloulafia is critical of some of the claims for this new wave of ‘disruptive technology’ – pointing out the reliance of aerospace on engine technology over airframes, current limitations on batteries, and the suspicion that hype is being used to attract investors or to change the image of established legacy manufacturers to being seen as Silicon Valley tech firms that happen to make aircraft.

He notes that these new start-ups, enthused with Silicon Valley tech optimism about Moore’s Law doubling computer power every 18-24 months have yet to encounter the reality of aeronautical development: “We see about 1%, maybe 2%, per year in efficiency improvements. Every decade or so something “disruptive” (by aeronautical world standards) produces a modest step change (say, a 10% efficiency boost). This new product is instantly followed by imitators”.

As an example of traditional aerospace innovation, he points to HondaJet – 20 years in the making and backed by a giant manufacturer. Can these ‘disruptive’ tech start-ups do better?           


A Jetsons future awaits?

Viral gimmick or future personal aerial transport? UK's Gravity inventor aims for practical 'Iron man' suit. (Gravity) 

But all hype aside, it may be we are now entering a new age of innovation and discovery in flight. Barely a week goes by now without a new hybrid-electric aircraft concept being revealed, flying car concept unveiled, a new use for drones trialled or another first in spaceflight history.   

Some of these advances, driven by IT technology, may be under the skin – such as enabling big data to predict maintenance faults and reduce the down time of airliners. Training delivered by virtual/augmented reality also may be invisible to the passenger but a game-changer for airlines or MROs

Other advances may be physical, bringing new efficiencies – such as 3D printed parts allowing much lighter airframes, but with the aircraft looking much the same on the outside, or morphing wings that optimise for different phases of flight. Again these may only bring incremental advances by themselves – but when incorporated with other technology could be seen as ‘disruptive’.   

More innovation may come from doing much with existing aircraft or platforms, such as using semi-stealth UAVs to drop humanitarian aid, adding targeting pods to tankers, or using F-35s to guide long-range ship-based surface-to-air missiles.

Finally there are those ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive – such as swarming UAVs, personal autonomous air vehicles, hybrid air vehicles delivering freight personal jet-packs powered by micro jet engines or a dramatic lowering of the cost of access to space. Who for example would have predicted that the aeroplane, a novelty when first invented, would occupy the place in modern world that it now does?   

One other aspect is that innovation today is truly global. No longer can any nation assume to be the leader. The democratisation of knowledge today means the next Wright brothers could as easily come from Shanghai as from Seattle, or from Tanzania, than from Toulouse. (Case in point is that Airbus Group’s new CTO, Paul Eremenko, is originally from Ukraine).

Finally, not all these ideas will make it. Like the dawn of aviation in the 1900s, some ideas will catch-on, others will emerge as dead-ends. And some may take time to reach fruition. Aerospace and aviation today is living off the research and development of 30 years or more ago in new materials, advanced alloys, engine technology, aerodynamics and the like. Autonomous ‘flying cars’ may be closer now than they have ever been, thanks to advances in autonomy, lightweight composites and electric motors and batteries – but it will still take a long time to develop the regulatory, safety and business environment in which they become viable.


Inspiring the next generation

Unleashing future generations imagination of what might be possible will help create the future. (SpaceX)

But perhaps the most important aspect of this recent burst of creativity, start-ups and innovation, is in inspiring the next generation of aeronautical engineers, inventors and aircrew. Many, if not most, of these ideas will fail and those that do succeed will take longer than expected. But in transmitting the message that aerospace is still cool, sexy and open to exciting ideas – this rash of innovative concepts may help secure the industry’s long-term future by attracting the best and brightest to push the frontiers of flight.         

In short, though the future is here and it may be that we one day look back on this period as beginning of the second golden age of pioneers in flight, that ushered in an age of green aircraft, personal urban transportation, ubiquitous drones and low-cost access to space. To steal a slogan from the tech industry from 1994 – ‘Where do you want to go to today?’

Tim Robinson
11 April 2017

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