10 Technologies That Are Reshaping Aerospace
AI on Board
Artificial intelligence in aerospace has so far been Earthbound, using machine learning to see trends and spot anomalies in vast amounts of data downlinked from aircraft and engines. But the technology is beginning to take flight, from machine vision for autonomous detect-and-avoid systems and reading airport signs during automated taxiing to speech recognition for digital air traffic control and even algorithms for automating dogfight maneuvers. Then there is Skyborg, a U.S. Air Force research program to field an unmanned “loyal wingman” in 2023 to begin gaining experience with combat AI.
Need for Speed?
Sustainability versus speed is an emerging debate as aviation looks to the next generation of aircraft. From business aviation to rotorcraft, higher speed appeals as a way to increase customer productivity—if the impact on cost can be constrained. But a divide is emerging between the U.S. and Europe over whether there should be a renaissance in supersonic air travel. U.S. startups are developing high-speed business jets and commercial airliners, but there are no European equivalents, and opposition from environmental groups is growing.
From drones below 400 ft. and air taxis at 1,000 ft. to supersonic airliners at 50,000 ft. and stratospheric pseudo-satellites above 60,000 ft., use of the Earth’s airspace is clearly becoming more complex. Add in a growing commercial space market that wants to routinely launch—and recover—rockets through that same airspace, and a new approach to air traffic management will be needed. Work is just beginning on an architecture that would coordinate operations from unmanned traffic management over cities to high-altitude traffic flows and space-launch approvals.
Finally, biofuels are showing signs of realizing their potential to reduce aviation emissions. More pathways to convert feedstocks to fuels continue to be approved. More important, airlines are starting to buy biofuels in bulk, and producers are beginning to scale up production volume. Today, barely 50 million gal. a year of sustainable aviation fuel is produced, but by 2022 that could be more than 1 billion gal. annually—only about 1% of global annual jet fuel consumption but a big step along the path to commercial volumes and competitive prices.
Vertical flight is enjoying a renaissance, from delivery drones to air taxis. But electric propulsion will have to deliver on its promise of increased safety, reduced noise and lower operating costs if the market for urban air mobility is to materialize. Out of scores of announced concepts for urban air taxis, about a dozen different full-scale prototypes of vehicles capable of carrying 2-5 people will have flown by the end of 2019—plus a handful of single-seat personal air vehicles. The first such aircraft could be certified as early as 2020.
By the end of 2019, at least three drone delivery services should be certified as commercial air carriers in the U.S.—a major step forward for a market that is already making inroads internationally. Blood and medicines in Rwanda and Ghana, vaccines in Vanuatu, defibrillators in Nevada, packages in China, 3D-printed parts to ships in Singapore, consumer goods in Canberra, Reykjavik and soon Helsinki—routine deliveries by drone are growing and diversifying. The next step, to be tested over the next year or two, is regional freight feeder service by drone.
From five seats to 50, and perhaps beyond, companies are pursuing hybrid-electric propulsion systems for a range of aircraft. Safran is developing the hybrid powertrain for Bell’s Nexus air taxi, while Honeywell and Rolls-Royce are also working on systems. All are based on existing helicopter turboshafts and cover a 400-800-kW power range. But it is not just about urban mobility. Lower energy costs could also revitalize short-range intra-city flights, and United Technologies Corp. is converting a 50-seat Dash 8 regional airliner to a demonstrator for a “productizable” 2-megawatt hybrid-electric propulsion system.
Engines have been the driver of aircraft-efficiency improvements for decades, but double-digit reductions in fuel burn are becoming harder to achieve. Attention has turned to the airframe and the long-known potential for laminar flow to reduce aerodynamic drag—if challenges with manufacturing tolerance and operational robustness can be overcome. Europe is wrapping up flights of a natural laminar flow (NLF) wing demonstrator—the Airbus A340-based BLADE—and plans a series of hybrid laminar flow control (HLFC) demonstrators by 2023. NLF could reduce drag by 5%, HLFC by 10%.
Servicing of satellites on orbit is set to take a step forward this year when Northrop Grumman launches its first Mission Extension vehicle to dock with an Intelsat spacecraft in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and extend its operational life by five or more years. NASA plans to follow in 2022 with the launch of the Maxar Technologies-built Restore-L to demonstrate satellite refueling in low Earth orbit (LEO). More ventures are emerging, eyeing the market to robotically repair, possibly deorbit and potentially assemble constellations of LEO satellites in space.
It took 60 years to reduce flight-deck crews from four to two but, fueled by projections that pilot demand will exceed supply, work on further automating and simplifying cockpit operations is gathering pace. It could start by making flight training easier, single-pilot operations safer and reducing crews on cargo operations. Certification and public and pilot acceptance are key, but next-generation military aircraft are being specified to be optionally manned. And Sikorsky’s vision of autonomy—that can be dialed from two crew to one to none, depending on the mission—will be tested over the coming year.