Technology moves faster every day. But commercial air travel hasn't changed as quickly as some industries in recent years. Experts project big changes in the next few decades, though, especially as aviation companies deploy significant innovations in design, material sciences and alternative energy sources. Here we take a look at some of changes on the horizon for commercial, cargo and experimental aircraft.
The N3-X concept aircraft, from Boeing and NASA, is based on a blended wing body (BWB) design intended to improve aerodynamics, fuel efficiency and noise emissions. The ultra-wide fuselage would greatly expand carrying capacity for commercial flights.
NASA/MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences
Developed by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the D8 "Double Bubble" aircraft would be used for domestic flights and is designed to fly at Mach 0.74 carrying 180 passengers in a coach cabin roomier than that of a Boeing 737-800. The D8 could enter service as soon as 2030, NASA says.
From Lockheed Martin, this concept design for a future supersonic aircraft is focused on reducing emissions and creating a quieter boom. A quieter craft would allow supersonic flights over land, where they are currently prohibited.
Meanwhile, over on the cargo plane tarmac, the GIGAbay concept envisions a ginormous aircraft powered by four hybrid fuel/electric engines, with supplemental energy provided by hydrogen fuel cells, wind generators and solar panels. The cargo area of the GIGAbay design is so large it could carry other jumbo aircraft, or even mobile field hospitals.
Powered by two superconducting electric motors, the concept plane known as the VoltAir (get it?) is a proposed all-electric airliner out of Europe. The engines would draw from next-generation lithium ion batteries -- really big ones -- that would be simply swapped out between flights.
University of Pisa, Italy
Some cutting-edge technologies on the horizon are actually modifications of existing designs that have been around for more than a century. To wit, the illustration above imagines the closed-wing "PrandtlPlane" design applied to commercial passenger aircraft. Closed-wing planes have smaller wingspans than traditional aircraft, relative to fuselage size, allowing larger planes to operate out of smaller airports.
Another sort of hybrid, the E-Thrust design -- from Rolls-Royce and several European partners -- uses a combination of gas-turbine engines and battery-powered fans. The jet engines would only kick in when needed, similar to gas/electric hybrid cars. The fans would also be used, on descent, as built-in windmills to recharge the onboard batteries.
And from the ultralight division, we have the Solar Impulse 2, the latest iteration of the world's most advanced solar-powered, single-seat aircraft. The Swiss team behind the project plans to circumnavigate the planet in 2015, using a team of pilots flying in shifts over the course of about five months.
Finally, from the designer who brought us the GIGAbay cargo plane, the mighty Sky Whale also subscribes to the concept that bigger equals better -- and greener. The Sky Whale is a largely theoretical vision for a passenger plane that could seat 755 passengers on three floors, using a combination of alternative power sources. The upshot? More passengers per flight means fewer flights, and fewer emissions.
If James Bond ever does settle down, FlyShip would probably be the preferred way for picking up his kids and taking them to school.
The $37 million concept vehicle developed by German engineers mashes together elements of boats, planes, and hovercraft for incredibly futurisitic maritime transport.
With a wingspan of 131 feet and enough interior space for 100 people, FlyShip is designed to hover just over water surfaces. This isn’t a blimp, either — the vehicle can reach speeds of up to 155 miles per hour.
“Our vessels are riding on a dynamic air cushion, which is produced by ram air under the reversed delta wings, lifting the body hull,” FlyShip’s Daniel Schindler told the Daily Mail.
Unlike other aircraft that require serious power to take off from water, FlyShip’s patented structure creates an air cushion under the hull by diverting some of the propeller’s stream there. It’s enough to lift most of FlyShip’s weight.
Once it reaches take-off speed, the whole thing switches to a birdlike surface-skimming mode that the company says is stable over waves, minimizing sea sickness.
This mashup is certainly versatile. While cruising through the water, its wings can folded up DeLorean-style in order to pass through a lock.
Although the cost for the next-generation FS-100 FlyShip is a little more than $37 million, that’s a bargain compared to the average $71 million pricetag for an Airbus A318 jetliner.
Another advantage: FlyShip only uses nearly 72 gallons of fuel every hour versus jetliners that require about 872 gallons in the same amount of time. Watch the prototypes get some air here:
Having tested the technology, the German company announced that they’re ready for commercial operation. They see FlyShip as closing the gap between cheap-but-slow ship transport and fast-but-expensive air travel, becoming a world leader in high speed maritime transportation. Oh, and you don’t need a pilot’s license to operate one.
The company also says that besides ferrying around cargo and passengers, FlyShip could be used in military surveillance and for anti-piracy missions. Sounds like perfect after-school activities for those Bond kids.