A simple white paper napkin depicts the future: at an informal dinner with aviation professionals the lead technical design engineer of Boeing sketches his personal vision of the airplane of the future, which is so futuristic that it even outranges the companies conceptual airplane. Any minute when a plane is not flying is a waste of money – the goal is to minimise the downtime. Leading airline companies already try to have their birds in the air around the clock. What still takes time is passenger boarding and de-boarding from an aircraft. Since there is no way to beam the humans aboard, the creative engineer found another solution to save time. In his futuristic vision, an airplane consists of a movable compartment, a ‘container’, where all passengers can be seated in a comfortable way before the plane has even landed. After embarking, while the passengers already enjoy their welcome drink, the whole compartment will be safely moved and secured to the fuselage, which consists mainly of one big airfoil with the engines.
When or even if this vision will ever be part of our daily life, is written in the stars. The large wing needed is already in development. Delta winged airplanes that look like a flounder were already designed during the last century. Any design that helps to reduce the amount of fuel needed has a great chance of being realised, especially when ecology goes hand in hand with economy.
Europe takes its part in the research. The DLR (German Aerospace Center) considers air transport infrastructure, the operation and the evaluation of new technologies to make this vision a reality.
Hamburg is the place for interdisciplinary evaluation of different air transport concepts. One key project there is VAMP, a shared ‘Virtual Integration Platform’, which unites technologies, aircraft designs and operational concepts developed under different perspectives by scientists at different DLR institutes. One of the current research themes is the modelling of the aerodynamic shape and structure of a blended wing body aircraft.
Even with the most aerodynamic structure and design, an airplane will need some kind of propulsion to fly. So an alternative aviation fuel is another main aspect of research for our future transportation. Will it ever make sense to fly airplanes with some other fuel than kerosene? The Stuttgart based DLR-Institute of Combustion Technology has been researching new synthetic fuels based on coal, natural gas or biomass. Currently all such research flights have been done with an alternative fuel mixed with kerosene (Jet A-1), the fuel specification for jet engines. In 2008, an Airbus A380 made the maiden flight with alternative fuel, Shell 50 per cent Gas-to-Liquid (GtL) added to 50 per cent Jet A-1. In October 2009, Qatar Airways made a commercial flight with this mixture in an A340-600 and in November 2009 KLM had put this mix into a Boeing 747-400 on a flight with 40 selected passengers.
The next step will be to find a suitable alternative fuel that can be used on its own but with the same physical properties as modern kerosene. At the EU level, feasibility and the use of alternative fuels for aviation are central factors. For this a roadmap is being devised in EU’s ALFA-BIRD project. As the feasibility has been demonstrated for various new aviation fuels, the challenge now is to produce them sustainably and in sufficient quantities at a reasonable price.
While for some scientists the propulsion system of the future faces an environment-friendly propeller driven travel, a lightweight construction adds to the new engines and optimised wings at the vision of a future green aircraft. One factor that can only be enhanced to a certain extent are humans, the pilots, that manipulate all the nicely developed new technology. Or maybe, for some researcher, they could be eliminated altogether?
Autonomous unmanned aircraft are a primary research project in many parts of the world. Unnoticed by the general public, there are already unmanned military aircraft flying high above our heads. Without doubt they have advantages when human life would be in great danger in a mission but mechanical failure in a complex system will always involve a certain amount of risk. The more planes are flying in the same airspace the more likely a critical situations will arise. The idea to reduce a commercial cockpit crew to only one pilot even in passenger flights is not new. However fine an aircraft is designed, no engineer ever can foresee all the incidents and possibilities that might arise in the practical life cycle of a commercial plane. A system with ‘integrated health management technology’, that immediately responds perfectly correct in any and all threatening situations simply is not possible – not now, not tomorrow, never. Almost all passengers, when asked if they would board a plane without a (well trained) human pilot in the cockpit, refuse with disgust. Maybe they have more insight to the situation than some theorists?
Another tendency in aviation is to make personal flying for everybody accessible – money-wise and also in the technical sense. There have been attempts since the Wright Brother’s first flight – one-man-lift-off devices with small rockets to flying cars. Several manufacturers are now in the process of getting their products on the market for the general public, yet all of those products face the fact that flying is a way of transportation in three dimensions and such is more complex than driving a car. So, the all in one airplane for everyman also faces great challenges from development into the future.
Featured image credit: Alexander Wallnöfer via FreeImages.com
EuroScientist is looking for contributors!
If you would like to write guest posts in EuroScientist magazine, send us your suggestions of articles at email@example.com.