What’s Next in Aviation
The Covid-19 pandemic struck a major blow to travel markets, hurting airlines in particular, but air travel is expected to recover by 2023. If anything, the pandemic has accelerated certain trends, such as the development of cleaner, more efficient aircraft.
Other, larger trends are at play. The convergence of several technologies, including AI, 3D printing, and virtual reality is driving much of these changes. Behind the scenes, innovators and entrepreneurs have been imagining new ways to fly. This article is an insider’s look into what’s coming down the pipe.
1. More artificial intelligence and automation
There are many good reasons to keep aircraft piloted by humans, chief among these being human general intelligence that can reason about complex emergencies and apply broad training with situational awareness.
However, most of the straightforward and repetitive tasks that pilots perform are either already fully automated or are in the process of being automated. Airbus has begun trialling a system for autonomous taxi, takeoff, and landing (ATTOL) that relies on advances in computer vision technology.
Artificial intelligence is also being applied throughout the technology ecosystem of aviation. Everything from baggage logistics and ticket pricing, to route planning and fuel burn.
2. Pilot training with the help of VR, AR, and AI
The tools we rely on for training are set to change in a major way. Where in the past, training consisted of classrooms, manuals, and simulators, the future of training will include the use of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). An airplane mechanic can now practice engine maintenance on a 3D model that they can dissect in virtual reality.
Transitioning from task-based learning to competency-based training is also underway. This new paradigm seeks to measure pilots against metrics like situational awareness, decision making, leadership and aircraft flight management. This is a big shift away from merely demonstrating proficiency across a broad spectrum of procedures or scenarios.
At Paladin AI, we’re feeding data from the learning environment (simulators, VR, other sensors) into an AI that can infer whether the desired competencies are present.
3. The return of supersonic airliners
The Concorde was an incredible feat of aerospace engineering, but several major factors prevented widespread adoption. Airspace restrictions meant it could only fly at supersonic speeds when over water. The cost of fuel and limited passenger capacity meant that a roundtrip ticket in 1990 from London to New York could cost $12,000. The Concorde was retired in 2003, three years after the tragic accident of Air France Flight 4590.
Now there are multiple startups seeking to build supersonic passenger aircraft and they’ve managed to raise millions of dollars in venture capital. Examples include Boom Supersonic and Aerion Supersonic.
It’s easy to forget that the Concorde was designed before the widespread use of computers. Today, engineers no longer need to slowly iterate through their designs by building expensive scale models and testing them in wind tunnels. Computer-aided design, 3D printing, and advanced materials mean that the next generation of supersonic aircraft will be lighter, faster, and less expensive.
4. Towards zero emissions
The climate crisis is focusing attention on reducing emissions associated with air travel, which currently contribute about 3% toward global CO2 emissions.
The widespread adoption of biofuels would be a good first step. Here, a portion of the jet fuel is replaced with a substitute derived from plant matter. Since plants extract carbon from the atmosphere, burning biofuel simply returns CO2 back to atmosphere for a net zero emission.
Jet fuel can also be synthesized from carbon captured at power plants or directly from the air, representing another avenue for emissions offsets. The advantage of these approaches is that they require no changes to aircraft engines or refueling infrastructure.
More radical approaches are also underway. Several companies are developing fully electric aircraft, powered either by onboard batteries or hydrogen gas. Advances in batteries and fuel cells are making the above possible.
5. Urban air mobility — the dream of flying cars
Planning is underway for the use of small vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicles for short range travel within and between cities. Hundreds of millions in venture capital has already been deployed to build the new aircraft, design urban vertiports and air traffic control systems. Few realize how close this vision is to reality. Paladin AI is active in multiple advanced air mobility forums, hoping to put in place the necessary technology for training the first generation of air taxi pilots. The urban air mobility movement is gaining momentum rapidly.
6. Last mile delivery by autonomous drones
The most complex and carbon intensive part of the supply chain is last mile delivery. Cargo that has previously been moved very efficiently by ship or rail must now be delivered by courier or small truck, usually burning diesel in the process.
Autonomous drones are now being fitted for this purpose. Startups like Zipline have already been operating in places like Rwanda and Ghana for years, delivering time-sensitive medical supplies by air. Drone Delivery Canada is solving the logistics problem for remote communities in Northern Canada. We will see many more such solutions deployed worldwide in the next few years.
7. Extraterrestrial aviation
On July 30, 2020, the Mars Perseverance rover was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and is due to land at Jezero crater on February 18, 2021. The mission includes an important technology demonstrator — the Ingenuity Martian drone helicopter, which will autonomously explore the Red Planet. This will represent the first powered flight on another planet.
The above are just a few of the many innovations being deployed. The future of aviation is going to look very different. Despite the setback of a pandemic, entrepreneurs are pushing forward to bring the future into the present.