Friday Favorites: The Future of Flight


The recent grounding of Boeing’s Dreamliner 787 has gotten us thinking: this Dreamliner has a few marked improvements, but nothing mind-blowing. Honestly, flight isn’t exactly where we (or various sci-fi movies) thought it would be in 2013. We’ve got conflicting agendas: people are wanting to travel more than ever as instant communication brings us together from all corners of the earth, while at the same time trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to deal with high-stakes risk from climate change. And Concorde still hasn’t been revived—nay even approached by current, commercial flight.

Not to mention that we have a truly pathetic national rail system. It’s fly or take the bus here in America.

Concorde crossed the Atlantic in two hours and fifty-four minutes in a record flight from New York to London. But the legendary plane failed from a series of circumstantial misfortunes: a crash in 2000 killed 113 passengers, then September 11 happened and people’s faith in the luxury air industry was too slow too recover. Citing flatlining profits, Air France and British Airways announced that the supersonic planes would be grounded for good in November 2003. Especially with an average seat costing $12,000; for all but the very rich, it seems like you might as well add on the time difference and be able to actually eat when you arrive at your destination. One journalist’s account of their Concorde flight here. Then there was the matter of the sonic boom. It was disruptive, to say the least, and would pretty much quash an Aerotropolis like future.

We’ve always been fascinated by people’s perceptions of technology. We can see expectations of the future writ in present day by watching old sci-fi movies, or we can head to the movie theater or book store today and daydream about whether or not their dystopian or enlightened inventions might actually take root. The painting above was Harry Grant Dart’s drawing circa 1900 about his vision of the future of flight. Not surprisingly, individual micro jets have been the stuff of future-oriented fantasies for years, but have mostly yet to materialize.

Here’s a roundup of some of the most intriguing concepts for the future of flight, evaluated for their potential environmental impact.

The Shape of Things

Norm Princen, an Engineer at Boeing knows what most physicists and engineers already do: making commercial planes, designed as they are, more fuel efficient has hit a plateau (read why at Empirical Zeal, a fascinating blog by Aatish Bhatia).

“…While Boeing estimates fuel efficiency has increased by up to 50% since its 707 jet first began flying in the late 1950s, the standard engine and wing design has probably reached its peak efficiency. “At some point,” [Princen] said, “you have to make a radical shift in the shape of a plane.”

Flying Saucers

One shape popular in aviation speculation is the flying saucer, though it has yet to make an earthly debut—or rather attempts to bring it to fruition have so far been failures. The saucer’s disc shape might provide some unique advantages, such as not needing moving parts (less potential for breaking down), reducing drag with a smooth, flat surface and in one iteration (WEAV) dreamed up by Aerospace Engineer Subrata Roy, it could run using a plasma field, wherein electrodes covering the surface would ionize surrounding air into plasma. A power source such as an electric battery or solar panel would then theoretically charge the plasma, making it possible for it to push against surrounding, neutrally charged air.

Environmental Impact: Although admittedly we don’t consider ourselves fluent in the effects of plasma fields, we are intrigued by the possibility of an aircraft able to run on electricity and /or solar power, especially with such a cool shape.

Bi-Directional Plane

For superior performance at both supersonic and subsonic speeds. The problem with traditional airplane designs is that the large wings provide lots of lift when taking off at low speeds, but impede travel at higher speeds once the plane is airborne. This bi-directional plane, dubbed the SbiDir-FW, (for short) rotates so the smaller set of wings are facing forward when supersonic speeds are desired. Designed by some students at the University of Miami, the project has received a grant from NASA.

Environmental Impact: Reducing drag can only mean good things for fuel mileage. We’re keeping tabs on this one for more specific information on how it plans to be energy efficient.

Alternative Fuels

After shape and material considerations, there is the fuel source to consider.

Zehst (Zero Emission Hypersonic Transportation)

Zehst Hypersonic Jet Concept

This hypersonic jet is said to be the “heir to the concorde”, potentially achieving up to Mach 5 and making the trip from NYC to London in just 90 minutes. The aircraft would achieve these speeds by using three engines: jet for take-off, rocket to accelerate to the desired height, and ultimately ram-jets, which can only be activated while in motion, to sustain the Zehst in flight nearly six miles above the Earth’s surface. During this feature-length movie long flight, the Zehst would only emit water vapor, running on a seaweed-based biofuel composed of hydrogen and oxygen.

Environmental Impact: The Zehst is merely a glint in the conceptual eye of EADS (Airbus’s parent company), but could arrive for real life usage in about forty years. The main caveat that we see from an environmental perspective is that water vapor, though it sounds innocuous, is a greenhouse gas just as much as Carbon Dioxide. As a matter of fact, water vapor is potentially an even more powerful gas than C02, although it’s net effect may be cooling. It’ll take some interesting modeling to determine whether these planes can help deter global warming or will play some role in accelerating it.

Solar Impulse

Solar Impulse Plane

The Solar Impulse, a solar powered plane, won’t get passengers to their destinations any faster than commercial airliners, at least not yet. The test flights have been set up to demonstrate the planes endurance, rather than focus on shorter flight times.

However, the Impulse can run on solar power completely, even storing up enough energy to fly through the night. The plane has so far successfully flown between various cities in Europe and Africa, with two men safely in the cockpit, returning each time with fully charged batteries.

The plane itself definitely looks futuristic, seeming to float through the air like a seagull. Watch it land in Toulouse.

Environmental Impact: The implications for a plane running on solar power, not fossil fuel, are enormous for mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases, and might be where the future is. Should the Impulse become mainstream, airports might need new infrastructure to house them, which won’t be cheap upfront. But solar energy is abundant and might result in a far cheaper flight not too far in the future—it just might take a little longer to get to your destination.

Flying Cars

Maverick Flying Car

As mentioned, individual vehicles capable of flight have been on the collective consciousness for years. Believe it or not, flying cars are not too far off, but of course they are reserved for the elite, costing at least $260,000 a pop. Terrafugia’s Transition car is one such vehicle, claiming its versitility because if weather becomes treacherous, it can simply land and continue driving on the road.

The Maverick looks a lot sleeker than the transition, and cites philanthropical impetuses, not ludicrously luxurious ones (i.e. the Transition writes in its description: “Could this replace your car? No, but it could replace your plane.”) The Maverick claims its mission as bridging the supply and education gap between places that aren’t connected by roads, and humanitarian aide.

Environmental Impact: Beyond the fact that these flying cars would deposit exhaust even higher into the air, there is wildlife to consider with the lower-flying nature of individual aircraft. Decentralizing national travel might prove beneficial (no driving to and from far-off rental car stations, no shuttles to and from the airport), then again it might make matters worse as the switch from national rail to private vehicles ultimately did. It all comes down to what’s burning (or not burning) in the gastank.