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.
The hybrid electric flying car that’s been a dream for so long is finally taking shape. Terrafugia announced that they expect to have a prototype for their computer-controlled electric aerial vehicle called the TF-X released within two years.
The company says a full-sized prototype of the TF-X will be ready by 2018, the Daily Mail reported. No price has been announced, a company spokesperson told DNEWS in an email, but they expect the vehicle to go into production within 8 to 12 years.
If that seems like forever, consider the timeline for Terrafugia’s first vehicle, a two-seater that runs on regular gasoline called the Transition. As Engadget’s Richard Lawler pointed out last year, the second-generation Transition prototype logged more than 100 hours in the air, but key hurdles remain. This latest version still needs meet automotive crash safety standards, and meet the FAA’s weight limit for Light-Sport Aircraft.
The TF-X design is even more complex. The idea is for the four-seat hybrid electric vehicle to have computer-controlled flight. After driving the TF-X out of the garage, twin propellers unfold and a megawatt of power lifts the vehicle up.
A 300-horsepower engine will power cruise and recharge the vehicle’s batteries, giving the hybrid electric vehicle a nonstop 500-mile flight range. The goal is to have cruising speeds around 200 miles per hour. It can also be recharged electrically on the ground.
All the automation has to be foolproof, too. The company wants operating a TF-X to be safer than driving a regular car. In the air, the vehicle should automatically avoid other aircraft, bad weather, and restricted airspace. Operators can either use manual or automatic control to fly. And an emergency landing sequence would go into effect if the operator becomes unresponsive.
The company said it's planning to conduct testing on a one-tenth size model in the Wright Brothers wind tunnel at MIT. While we wait for the full-sized prototype, here’s what the TF-X could look like:
The Massachusetts-based company has had a special place in my heart ever since I interviewed Terrfugia co-founder and CEO Carl Dietrich about the Transition’s maiden flight for Discovery back in 2009 (video).
At that point, Dietrich preferred to call it a street legal airplane. Since then, the company has fully embraced the flying car moniker. The language might have changed, but the goal to have a safe, environmentally friendly flying car hasn’t. With so much at stake, we can afford to be patient.