Summary: The aviation industry is living through one of the most (now positively) exciting times in its history, and will be for decades to come; this is my small take on why, including the developments I’m not 100% comfortable with.
Despite being ravaged by the pandemic, and only beginnings its complex recovery, the aviation industry is living through one its most exciting periods ever.
Why is that?
Three things: we’re finding new ways to power flight; there are soon going to be more things flying in the sky than ever before; and there is a varied mix of developments taking place in automating flight.
It all makes up for a very exciting research, development and operations environment, and a more dynamic state from a technological change point of view than the industry has seen in a long time. While that never comes without risks, it’s exciting so let’s do a quick recap of the big things that are happening.
New ways to power flight
Engines tend to be kind of important for any aircraft, so let’s start from the propulsion landscape.
There’s a lot going on in there.
Many of the new developments in this field are driven by the increasingly urgent need to cut emissions; while aviation accounts for “only” around ~2.5% of global emissions, IATA has committed to the industry having net-zero emissions by 2050.
What does a more environmentally efficient way of flying look like? There are many threads, ranging from incremental, evolutionary approaches to revolutionary ones.
The industry is expecting the bulk of emissions reductions to come from SAF, or Sustainable Aviation Fuel. Some of these come from traditional liquid fuel players like Shell and Neste, others from smaller, newer players like SkyNRG, We’re thankfully (hopefully!) mostly done with the 1st generation biofuels that compete with food production, and now have performance-wise acceptable practically drop-in 3rd generation biofuels developed from several sources like waste cooking oil.
The basic technological capability is now there, but achieving sufficient scale at all, and let alone at not-too-expensive a cost remains an uncertain prospect. 4th generation biofuels, on the other hand, have more open technological and scaling issues.
Another thread for powering some aircraft is hydrogen. Airbus is confident it can bring the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft to market by 2035. Hydrogen, however, has a) a creation problem in that making hydrogen requires significant amounts of energy, and b) a storage problem in that its energy density is poor and storing it in liquid form is hard.
There are two ways to use hydrogen in aircraft; direct combustion like Airbus is planning, or as electricity via fuel cells, like Universal Hydrogen or ZeroAvia are planning. Fuel cells add their own cost, complexity and durability challenges.
On the smaller end of the scale, pure electric aircraft are being developed at a relatively rapid clip; the current plans from manufacturers such as Eviation extend to approx. 19-seat regional electric aircraft, which are a comparatively tiny market to begin with, and the initial aircraft will have capabilities that are likely to not prove very cost-competitive. Battery weight, cost, recharging, cycle times and so on continue to be major obstacles, but we’re seeing progress, and if we get another battery capacity doubling in 10 years’ time, or two in 20 years’, things start looking much brighter for pure electric aircraft.
Of course, batteries are only part of the story for electric aircraft; they also need powerful, reliable electric engines that companies like magniX are developing, providing yet another exciting R&D space to watch.
In any space where new technology seeks to supplant the old but is not quite ready to do it in one fell swoop, you will see the emergence of hybrid technologies; aviation is no exception. Among other players, De Havilland Canada and Pratt & Whitney Canada are working on hybrid-electric propulsion technology.
As with vehicles, hybrids are likely to be an interim solution, but that interim can last for decades and is an important stepping stone nonetheless. Embraer is one manufacturer presently looking at developing the full mix of electric, hybrid, and both the fuel cell and gas turbine versions of hydrogen.
All of the electric, hydrogen, or hybrid developments, however, are at the smaller end of commercial aircraft.
There are other exciting things happening on the engine front, too. We are used to seeing propellers at the smaller end and turbofans with increasingly large casings as bypass ratios increase at the larger end, but GE and Safran are developing a distinctly funky-looking RISE (Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines) engine; while open-rotor engines are not new per se, RISE is projected to have 20% lower emissions than the more traditional types.
Even ‘old-school’ new engines are being developed; GE recently completed the first new clean-sheet turboprop engine in half a century with the Catalyst.
While technically not a propulsion-thing, there are even efforts to completely redesign what an aircraft looks like. One of the Airbus ZEROe concepts is a blended-wing body (BWB) design, while Boeing and NASA have long worked on another concept, a Transonic Truss-Braced Wing design, with estimated 4-8% fuel efficiency improvements.
New things up in the air
In addition to the changing propulsion and design of commercial aircraft, there is a plethora of other equipment heading to the skies, promising – or threatening, depending on your perspective – to make it a much more crowded space.
The category that captures most of the media attention is eVTOL aircraft, also colloquially known as “air taxis”. I am on record for being a little skeptical of this hype; literally hundreds of companies globally are building solutions and, as is mandatory for the startup mindset, all have high expectations of world dominance.
Even the novel “air taxis” have a number of categories with different prospective fates. The majority of emerging eVTOL players focus on these Urban Air Mobility (UAM)-type of people-carrying drones, which as it happens are the most difficult environment to successfully deploy in.
There are other, more realistic domains to start deployments from; I believe companies that focus on cargo drones (e.g. Volansi), Regional Air Mobility (RAM; e.g. XWing) or special use cases like emergency services are more feasible in terms of actually making it to real-life deployment.
At the smaller end, the hype around delivery drones has died down a little bit with a couple of high-profile exits, but there are still many companies actively chasing this business as well, like Google’s Wing who are still persistently proceeding and developing in Queensland.
Meanwhile, the air is growing thicker with drones for all kinds of other uses; from agricultural and bushfire monitoring to asset inspection to photography to light shows and a number of unnerving military uses, consumers and companies alike are adopting drones for a huge variety of purposes – some a little daft and/or gimmicky, if we’re honest, but many providing actual business value.
New paths for automation
Automation in aviation is a topic close to my heart, though it’s also something that causes a measure of anxiety: see my take on automation here.
I have some philosophical, societal and technological objections to automating flight, so many of these developments make me uncomfortable particularly for passenger-carrying operations. Instead of implementing automation to supplant the humans, I believe we should focus more on effective collaboration and sufficient training for the humans. But this isn’t an article about that.
Nevertheless, automation in aviation is being developed, planned, and deployed in a plethora of ways. Of the big two manufacturers, Airbus is much more active in the automation drive, prepping the Airbus A350 for both fully autonomous flight through their ATTOL program, and working with Cathay Pacific on single-pilot operations for long-haul cruise.
There are also a number of companies working towards automating smaller planes; Merlin Labs has some pretty impressive autonomous systems for the King Air, my favorite GA aircraft. Reliable Robotics is another company looking to automate smaller planes, including some remote piloting possibilities.
There are also other paths to flight automation or assistance, like Skyryse’s FlightOS, that is driven by a dream of making flying as accessible as driving a car – a great example of an idea that’s exciting from the perspective of an individual, and tremendously frightening from a systems point of view. Have people who want your average Joe flying a helicopter been observing what’s happening on the roads?
The automation desire obviously extends to the new things in the sky; there is a strong drive to have all the eVTOL autonomous – the plans of having hundreds or thousands of them in every large city do not scale with human pilots.
There’s clearly a lot going on, and these are just the big-ticket items happening in the air; there’s plenty of big developments required on the ground to enable the deployment of many of these (electric and hydrogen infrastructure; vertiports, etc.), and there are many smaller, but still big, developments flying under the radar like air traffic automation and other improvements, procedure improvements that save fuel like Continuous Descent Operation (CDO) or growing direct routing, even things like transatlantic formation flying with an impressive potential to save 5% of fuel, or small altitude changes cutting contrail impacts by more than half.
While any one of these developments would be exciting in their own right, and I applaud the thousands of engineers working to solve the myriad challenges in each domain, what excites me the most is the number of different active threads of development.
We know that not all ideas will ever see broad adoption; they can fail in any number of ways, and some will. Some may fail because the large amounts of R&D funding required will not materialize; others might fail because the technology isn’t ready, or the policy environment fails them, or they cannot be scaled up; others yet will fail for not being cost-effective.
I fully expect all of them will not see the light of day in broad commercial use.
But some surely will, and they will usher in an era of transformation unlike any the aviation industry has seen for decades, or possibly ever.
And that’s exciting.
Ps. If it seems like individually, these are all small improvements – a few percentages here, another few there – you would be largely right. Even big-ticket items like SAF do not form a single ‘solution’ to the matter of emissions; but in this, reducing emissions in aviation parallels reducing emissions everywhere. We don’t have silver bullets, but what we do have is strategies that are all helpful, and we need to implement as many of them as we can muster.
Ps2. I don’t actually believe the aviation industry, or [m]any other industries for that matter, can become carbon-neutral without unforeseen technological breakthroughs. The difficulty of the goal, however, should not distract us from the valuable contributions aspiring towards it will create.