The aviation industry is, after a disastrous 2020, finally showing some signs of life. While the ramp-up is still slow on the normal operations side, the speculative future side is experiencing a downright boom.
Or should I say Boom, because one of the threads is the renewed push into making supersonic passenger travel viable.
That’s only a small part of it though, as enormous activity is building up on several fronts in addition to the supersonic ventures; eVTOLs and drones are busy capturing both billions and headlines; there is the drive towards autonomous fixed-wing aircraft (Merlin Labs, Reliable Robotics et al); there is also a multi-pronged push to making aviation more sustainable in the form of new types of propulsion systems (electric, hydrogen, hybrid), sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), new wing designs (TTBW), a radical rethinking of what an engine looks like (CFM’s RISE), and more.
There is just a lot happening in the aviation R&D space. Every subdomain is either attracting or wishes to attract billions of dollars of investment, sourced from the usual suspects – government, investors, and VCs.
Lots of excitement, many entrants to the market, no shortage of hype, large amounts of money, often no real product and certainly no clear path to success…
Sounds familiar. I think there is another word for this situation.
Taken together, you could say these spheres of rising activity represent a thermal, the kind gliders can use to climb – except this time it’s a hype thermal.
Why do I worry about this?
I worry about it because I have seen the cycle happen many times over on the tech industry side – and worse, it’s the technology sector that has brought that hype to some sectors of the aviation industry.
Worst house-warming gift ever, not least because it comes with a side of maladaptive culture.
Collision of cultures
I am less worried about the new developments that have originated from within the aviation industry; think CFM’s engine development plans and introduction of SAF and the likes.
I am more worried about projects that have their genesis largely outside the aviation industry, like urban air mobility schemes.
Why? Because the tech world and the aviation world have two very different cultures.
For the aviation industry, safety is paramount.
Pilots, too, as individuals and as crew, always need to think ahead and exercise some foresight – visualizing where they are going to be in 5 minutes time and what happens then.
Usually, this foresight is pessimistic in nature in the sense that pilots constantly imagine things that can go wrong, and always have a plan B ready to go in their minds; let’s call it foresight-informed strategic automaticity.
I think it’s fair to say that by and large, the tech industry does not share that culture of healthy pessimism.
The prevailing ethos is exemplified by Facebook’s old motto of “move fast and break things”; it is not quite that bad anymore, but rapid action, exponential growth, and disruption are broadly still considered the guiding principles and something to strive at.
It’s just a very different mindset, and as exemplified by this XKCD comic, that mindset does not fit everywhere:
When the sun goes down…
Another problem is that thermals, like VC money, last only so long, and can only carry you so far.
A sunset inevitably follows; the thermals disappear; the money dries out.
When that happens, it will become evident what areas were bubbles.
While bubbles are not an efficient means of generating new knowledge, they are not 100% bad things.
Unlike real estate bubbles, bubbles in technology normally aren’t inflated by borrowed money that then causes widespread cascading effects in the economy. The bursts are gentler than that of, say, real estate bubbles.
While there is widespread pain among the participants when the bubbles deflate – think corporate failures, massive consolidation, fire sales, lost jobs – they can leave useful things behind; new technologies, new building blocks that can potentially be repurposed for other uses.
The flood of money does generate new knowledge, and new technology, which can and often does live on even after the bubbles have popped.
None of which is to say bubbles are good, either.
Let’s hope we have a glider
The story of these bubbles is arguably just starting; billions of dollars will continue to pour into many of the sub-domains mentioned.
But sooner or later, what goes up – especially when it happens in a spectacular fashion – must come down – usually also in a spectacular fashion.
Thermals die; bubbles burst.
With that context, I have a few goals and hopes:
- That we can dampen some of the most exuberant features of the hype, because it softens the landing on the other side; let us aim for the experience of a glider that rises on the thermals and gently lands – not a rocket that runs out of propellant before reaching orbit.
- That this new mania does not make the already boom/bust-prone industry even more volatile; to do that, we must seek to contain the bubbles.
- That those sectors which will have been bubbles have produced something worthwhile.
- That we can contain the collisions to one of cultures, not the other types.
- That regulatory and other controlling elements are strong enough to resist the lure of disruption for the sake of “progress”, and instead, proceed in a more thoughtful manner.
Having said that, all the activity is exciting – so enjoy the thermals, but keep a plan B in mind if it dies before you want it to.