Flight 100 – the next 100 years
Flight’s first editor Stanley Spooner had little trouble deciding what story would be the lead in our inaugural issue 100 years ago – “A Second Englishman Flies” was our first headline. But back in those pioneering early days, what would Spooner have predicted for the top aerospace story a century later?
Even the most enthusiastic aeronauts and aviators in 1909 would have struggled to believe the way in which powered flight would evolve during the magazine’s first 100 years: that the aeroplane would be “going to war” within five years that passengers would be travelling in shirtsleeve comfort across the Atlantic at twice the speed of sound within 70 years or that within 80 years a winged spaceplane would be regularly blasting into orbit and returning to earth as a glider.
Predicting what lies in store over the next 100 years of aviation is just as challenging. The framework for the near term (the next 20 or 30 years) is already in place, with new airliner programmes such as the Airbus A350, A380 and Boeing 787 and military aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-22, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and Eurofighter Typhoon set to be with us well into the first half of the century. But surely some of the exciting new technology currently in the minds of the industry’s boffins will lead to more imaginative creations appearing in the longer term?
There are some fundamental questions that must be answered when examining likely scenarios 50 to 100 years from now: how much oil will be left and how much will it cost? Will the green lobby – and any increasing evidence of serious climate change – have forced the way we travel by air to have to be reinvented? How will the threats to world security/peace influence military aircraft design? And how much of the space exploration dream will have become a reality?
The driver for new airliners will be the shape of the industry that flies them. If today’s drive for consolidation through alliances and mergers is allowed to run its course (assuming the regulatory environment is adjusted to permit it), then there could end up being just three major airline groups – perhaps one for each continent – “America Air”, “Europe Air” and “Asia Air” – or three international global network carriers slugging it out through hubs in Europe, the Gulf and South-East Asia.
Extreme scenarios at each end could see passengers either travelling in ultra-fast and ultra-green jets, or facing a strict rationing of flying because of environmental concerns. The latter could also result in competition being eliminated and route duplication outlawed.
A European future-aviation think-tank, dubbed Out of the Box, is evaluating various “far-out ideas” that could address environmental concerns and enable the airline business as we know it to be sustained. By adopting ground-based power sources for take-off and landing, the aircraft’s installed power and systems could be reduced with direct benefit to fuel consumption and weight. Ideas to propel the aircraft aloft include electrical, steam or magnetic devices using oil-based, nuclear or solar energy sources. For landing, aircraft weight could be reduced by eliminating the undercarriage with landings on water or on small cars using electro-magnetic fields to position the aircraft.
Out of the Box also envisages large “cruiser” airliners, possibly nuclear-powered, remaining airborne almost indefinitely flying on circular routes connecting major population centres. Short-range shuttle aircraft would intercept the cruisers and land on or dock for the transfer of passengers and freight.
NASA is gearing its research effort to deliver novel solutions within three aircraft development generations. It has awarded 18-month study research contracts to six industry teams to study advanced concepts for subsonic and supersonic airliners with advanced airframes and propulsion systems.
Dubbed N+3, the concepts should be three generations beyond the current commercial transport fleet that could enter service in 25 to 30 years and able to overcome significant performance and environmental challenges.
AIR TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT
Of course a vital element of future air transport will be a restructuring of air traffic management. While a globalised and seamless air traffic system might seem an unachievable dream, it has to be a target. The ongoing effort to create a “Single European Sky” should represent only the beginning, with new technology allowing a high degree of autonomy to enable individual aircraft make their own way through controlled airspace. Could this ultimately lead to pilotless airliners? Some airline chief executives would surely hope so.
The humans that get to keep their place at the controls can expect continuous improvements in the technology at their fingertips, even if the cockpit layout itself becomes much simpler thanks to greater automation. An obvious development would be for the head-up display to become standard, providing navigation data combined with synthetic and enhanced vision, while voice recognition will take care of switch inputs. Meanwhile, increasing automation of flight controls will see the pilot with less manual involvement in the flying – and taxiing – which should lead to an improvement in safety.
Ever-improving surveillance capability will enable satellite-based and real-time four-dimensional operations with constant dataflow between the air and the ground – the latter having the option to take control in an emergency. Such developments would pave the way for single-pilot operations of freighters and other non-passenger carrying flights.
The development of engines in the near term will be targeted at lower fuel consumption and emissions, although achieving this in parallel with further significant noise reductions will be a challenge. Geared turbofans, advanced turbofans and open rotors may hold the answer in the shorter term, while efficiency could be improved through recuperation where heat energy is taken from the hot section.
But a clean-sheet approach to power will be needed eventually. The diminishing availability of oil will drive the development of engines compatible with non-fossil-based fuels – for example engines that are capable of direct burning of gaseous or liquid hydrogen derived from water.
Future engines could see on-board power generated directly from their shafts using electromagnets, eliminating the need for an accessory gearbox. However, in the medium term, fuel cells are more likely to provide an answer in the drive to reduce reliance on engines for all on-board power.
As part of the effort to reduce aircraft weight and boost efficiency, the more-electric concept will see electric actuators replace hydraulic systems throughout the airframe.
The JSF will make fifth-generation fighters a reality when it enters service in 2013, but it will still have a little pink body sat at the sharp end controlling it. The US Air Force is working on an “interim” next-generation bomber to augment the B-1B, B-2 and geriatric B-52, which will be also manned. This is notionally aimed for a 2018 debut, but it is more likely to arrive some time in the early 2020s.
As the successors to the Pentagon’s original “black jet”, the F-117A, the Raptor and F-35 represent the latest interpretation of stealth technology. Where this will go next is unclear – could the technology extend to areas like visual stealth, enabling the creation of 007-style “invisible” helicopters?
While no successor to the F-35 has yet been formally discussed, both the USAF and the US Navy have started talking about a “sixth-generation fighter” to replace F-15s and F/A-18s, starting around 2025. This could be a pilotless concept, taking the shape of an unmanned combat air vehicle like the Boeing X-45 or Northrop Grumman X-47, or a more conventional piloted design, for example a development of the F-22.
If the unmanned route is followed, could this ultimately lead to an autonomous aircraft controlled by an on-board computer that can mimic human cognitive reasoning? If that sounds too far-fetched, then perhaps at least consider that the stores the UCAV carries will be “intelligent munitions” with independent “loiter, search and destroy” capability.
A more radical bomber design beyond the interim plan is proposed for 2037. So far there have been few clues on how it will be controlled and what it will look like, although hypersonic performance is clearly among the candidate capabilities.
At the other extreme, work is intensifying on the development of tiny “nano-technology” aircraft that can fly surveillance missions undetected to previously inaccessible locations. Lockheed Martin is already working on a remote-controlled nano air vehicle design under a $1.7 million contract from the US Department of Defense’s DARPA research arm.
Beyond the horizon, military concepts could close the gap to spacecraft designs – as they did in the “Right Stuff” era of the X-15 back in the 1960s – leading to the creation of aircraft with hypersonic performance capable of sub-orbital flights. Such aircraft could use air-breathing hypersonic-cruise engines – possibly of all-composite structure – although such performance and technology is more likely to find an initial application on the next generation of air-launched missiles.
Back in the last century, the dawn of space weaponisation came close with US President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plan. The prospect of such capability arriving in the next 100 years must be considered strong, perhaps in the form of a “directed-energy” weapon like a particle beam or laser – pure science fiction or future science fact?
In the military support arena, there may be some radical ideas for mega transports to succeed aircraft like the C-5 Galaxy in the troop transport role. These could take the form of huge blimps or aircraft – for example, a blended wing body design – capable of transporting hundreds of troops and their vehicles and equipment.
General aviation – as we would define it today – was where powered flight originated early in the 20th century, and the next 100 years should see increasing numbers of people being able to enjoy the pleasure of “personal aviation”, thanks to the ever greater availability of small, inexpensive and flexible aircraft.
Flying cars transporting people along dedicated “highways in the sky” at low cost on high-volume routes similar to the railway networks operated today, could be the answer to growing road congestion. The new generation of very light and personal jets will become an increasingly viable alternative to the strict regime of commercial flying, at a fraction of the cost of today’s business jets. This could fuel the growth of air taxi operations, which would become an integral part of the transport system and open remote and formerly inaccessible areas to businesses and individuals.
At the top end of the market supersonic business travel could become the norm for high net worth customers, as all the major corporate jet airframers develop designs capable of long range and very fast cruise speeds beyond the speed of sound.
Given that the space age was two years old when Flight celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1959, at that time our team of journalists could have been forgiven for making some quite ambitious predictions for interplanetary achievements through the next half century. But the reality has been that after a momentous start – man walked on the Moon the year we reached our 60th birthday – they would probably have expected much more than we have achieved since then.
Having made spaceplanes a reality in 1981 with the Space Shuttle, NASA has decided to return to Apollo technology for its replacement. Sir Richard Branson’s efforts apart – he aims to operate his first Virgin Galactic space tourism flights this year – further progress in manned spaceflight will depend on what US president-elect Obama decides to do once he reaches office.
Among the decisions to be made are how and whether to continue with plans to return to the Moon – could an international lunar outpost become a reality in the next 20 years.
The International Space Station is likely to see another decade of service before it is de-orbited. Will its replacement – or the lunar outpost – be built with as much emphasis on commercial tourist flights as on scientific research? And could a manned mission to Mars be nearing reality by the middle of the century?
Longer-term space exploration will depend much on new propulsion technology, such as nuclear-electric “plasma” engines (also known as impulse drives) that could power robotic missions to the outer planets in the solar system. Using fission systems as their basis, such engines could reduce the travel time between Earth and Mars from the six months envisaged.
NEW ROCKET TECHNOLOGY
The xenon gas-powered plasma thrusters used on the latest satellites and interplanetary probes will gain increased power and specific impulse durations as their power source changes from today’s solar panels to a simple nuclear device using the heat from a radioactive material, and eventually a fission nuclear reactor. New rocket technology to place spacecraft into orbit will see the slow phasing out of hypergolic propellants and replacement by a liquid oxygen/kerosene for the main engines (or LOx/liquid hydrogen where higher specific impulse is needed).
And lurking in the background throughout all this development will be the possibility that NASA and its partners may one day be called upon to develop a robotic mission to divert an asteroid on a collision course with Earth.
Much of these thoughts for the next 100 years of Flight may appear to be little more than science fiction. But then the same would have been true of the aviation feats that became realities during our first century, to the readers who picked up our inaugural issue in January 1909.