For as long as I’ve taken airplanes — the first time being when I was just five years old — they’ve looked pretty much the same. An airplane from the 1970s doesn’t look all that different from those in the airports today.
A radical redesign is on the cards and could very well happen within a decade. Back in 2010, NASA awarded contracts to three key plane-makers Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and The Boeing Company, to come up with new plane designs that could be ready by 2025.
At the time of the award, the three companies already had conceptual drawings of what their respective designs would more or less look like. Each design is quite different from the other but they all have to fulfil NASA’s three key goals of less noise, cleaner exhaust and lower fuel consumption. Each also has to fly up to 85 per cent of the speed of sound, cover a range of approximately 11,265km, and carry up to 45,360kg of payload.
The look and feel of a plane isn’t the only thing that’s changing. The way planes are powered will also see a switch — away from fossil fuel to electricity. We already see this starting to happen with cars and trains but planes will take longer because powering a plane on electricity is a lot more complex. It will happen though. All the major aviation players are working towards this.
Air travel currently accounts for about three per cent of global carbon dioxide emission. That figure is expected to double within a decade and quadruple by 2050. The European Commission has described aviation as “one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions”.
Something obviously has to be done or we will destroy our atmosphere. Going electric seems to be the solution. In 2014, Airbus debut an all-electric aircraft for demonstration purposes. It was just a two-seater plane powered by electricity. A year later, that plane managed to fly across the English Channel on electricity alone. So, the technology is already there. It’s just not ready for prime time yet.
Boeing has signalled its seriousness about going electric by purchasing electric aircraft start up, Aurora Flight Services, and providing backing to another start-up, Zunum Aero, which is working on a hybrid gas-electric plane.
Not to be outdone, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens have teamed up to work on a project dubbed, E-Fan X, which involves using two-megawatt electric motors. Airbus will oversee the aircraft’s overall integration. Rolls-Royce will provide the engine and two-megawatt generator. Siemens will provide the two-megawatt electric motors and power distribution system. A working version could take off as early as 2020.
But it’s not just the big boys who are playing the electric plane game. An independent start-up, Eviation Aircraft, last year unveiled the first prototype of its all-electric aircraft at the 52nd International Paris Air Show. The plane, which has a range of 965km (on a single charge), can carry up to nine passengers and two crew members.
The main challenge all these electric plane projects face is the battery. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who knows a thing or two about batteries, has said once batteries are capable of producing 400 Watt-hours per kilogramme, electrical trans-continental aircrafts will become viable. Current lithium-ion technology is capable of about 300 Watt-hours per kilogramme. Analysts expect battery makers to hit the 400 mark within a decade.
We actually used to be able to travel at hypersonic speed with the Concorde. But that iconic plane was retired in 2003 and we haven’t had a new version of a high-speed plane since then. That doesn’t mean nobody’s working on one.
Airbus has patented a hypersonic jet capable of reaching 4.5 times the speed of sound. Meanwhile, NASA is sponsoring the design of a hypersonic plane with a low boom. If it succeeds it would be a big deal. The Concorde was allowed to fly only over water because of its loud sonic boom. But a hypersonic flight without the boom could fly over land.
Again, it’s not only the big boys doing all the cutting-edge work in this area. A start-up called Boom Supersonic has announced it has raised the necessary capital to build a demonstration version of an arrow-shaped supersonic jet. Eventually, the full version should be able to travel from London to New York in just over three hours, which is less than half the time it takes now.
Just as all the major car makers are working furiously at creating driverless cars, all the major plane makers are also working on pilotless planes. As scary as a driverless car sounds, a pilotless plane sounds even more terrifying. But the technology for this is as sound as the one for autonomous cars, which will soon become reality. Autonomous planes will take a little bit longer to be ready but its day will come.
When it happens, many pilots will lose their jobs. The airline companies would save a lot of money though. According to a report by UBS, the airline industry could stand to save as much as US$30 billion (RM116.3 billion) over two decades by adopting autonomous flight technology.
Inflight entertainment usually consists of an airline magazine, which isn’t usually very interesting and old movies that have been censored for general viewing on a plane. This isn’t exactly gripping entertainment, which is probably why most people prefer to sleep on a plane.
There are efforts underway to radically transform inflight entertainment and it doesn’t call for an overhaul of an airline’s magazine or entertainment console. All it will take is reliable, fast-speed wireless Internet access. Once you’re able to offer that, you don’t need to provide passengers with a magazine or old movies. They’ll keep themselves busy and entertained on their own.
The best part is the airline doesn’t even have to come up with the hardware. Virtually everybody will have a laptop, tablet or mobile phone from which they can access the Internet.
Again, this is technology that’s already available and indeed some airlines do offer it but as a premium service that costs an arm and a leg. One airline, JetBlue, has started offering its passengers free Internet access. This will probably become a trend and every airline will soon have to do so too. It’s sort of like if you own a coffee shop, you have to provide free Wifi.
Planes may be boring now but as you can see, they won’t be for long. What we’re looking at are environmentally-friendly, cool-looking planes flying autonomously at hypersonic speeds while you surf the Internet. Flying is going to be more exciting than ever!