Aviation’s three-pronged future | Sunday Observer

Aviation’s three-pronged future

A flying taxi
A flying taxi

It is June 26, 2051. I call a cab through my smart speaker to go to the nearest ‘Skyport’ and just minutes later, a sleek, driverless car appears on the driveway. I get in, tell the car my destination and in next to no time, I am deposited at the Skyport where I have to catch a flying taxi to the Airport. Out of habit, I have come early, so I grab a ‘meatless meat’ burger and a drink and make my way to the ‘gate’ for my air taxi. I get in along with five other people and the electric flying taxi whisks us along silently. There is a pilot on board, though it can fly autonomously as well. Before we know it, we have arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport.

I have to catch a flight to London – and it is just four hours away. I wave my phone, check the luggage in and go to the gate where a beautiful new supersonic plane awaits 55 passengers. After a brief wait, we are ushered into the plane. Once cleared by the ATC, the plane takes off without much ado and rapidly reaches its maximum speed of Mach 2.2 (around 2,700 Km/h), more than twice the speed of sound. I barely have time to finish my excellent in-flight meal before the plane touches down at Heathrow. I then recall to a flight attendant that the same journey took me around 11 hours back in 2021.

This is no flight of fancy, even though it is not even 2021 yet, leave alone 2051. Remember, we already had a supersonic plane called the Concorde, which failed because of the immense sonic boom (developed as the plane breaks the sound barrier) and one catastrophic accident in 2003. But now, they are coming back and will be with us for good.

The supersonic flight was just one of the three major trends in aviation witnessed at the recently concluded Paris Air Show. They are, in no particular order – electric planes, flying taxis and supersonic aircraft. Each of these technologies is already on the way to actual realization, having passed the drawing board stage. Just last week, I touched on the subject of Flight Shame, wherein people are hesitating to fly because of the negative environmental impact of today’s kerosene-powered jets and turboprops. Electric planes have long been touted as one answer.

But the problem so far was that batteries were largely inefficient to power an aircraft, which problem has now been addressed. The first commercial passenger carrying electric plane should be in the air as soon as 2024 if the certification process goes well. Billed as the world’s first full-sized, all-electric aircraft, the Israeli-made Eviation Alice is designed to fly up to 650 miles at a cruising speed of 240 knots (276 mph) while producing zero emissions, potentially making it the world’s most eco-friendly plane. Eviation Aircraft also claims 70% fewer running costs than conventional jets, thanks to a propulsion system that relies on three electric motors and a 3,500 kg battery. The nine-passenger plane has already received an order for 92 units from the US regional airline Cape Air.

The price, in relative terms, is not bad at just US$ 4 million per unit. Some conventional private jets cost 10 times as much. Expect battery weight and prices to go down, making bigger electric aircraft possible. But at current rates of progress, it would be sometime before an Airbus A320/Boeing 737 size airline can be entirely powered by electricity.

But there is an intermediate solution, as first seen in cars – the hybrid. Now, United Technologies of the USA wants to take it to the skies, through ‘Project 804,’ which adds new battery technology and a 2-megawatt hybrid-electric propulsion system to an existing aircraft. “We’re basically taking a commuter regional turboprop airplane and making it such that during take-off and climb, about half the energy is supplied electrically and about half of the supply is maintained by the engine,” United Technologies Chief Technology Officer Paul Eremenko told the media in Paris. If successful, UT believes Project 804 will reduce fuel costs on a typical one-hour flight by 30 percent and significantly lower carbon emissions. The firm aims at a demonstration aircraft flying by 2022.

As for supersonic aircraft, several companies are working on competing designs. But they all aim at keeping the sonic boom down, because current rules prohibit sonic booms over residential areas (there is no such restriction over the ocean). Boom Supersonic of Colorado is seeking to have its plane in the air in the next few years, thanks to a partnership with Japan Air Lines. NASA is also among the contenders, with its radical X-59 QueSST, which has no conventional cockpit in front. Instead of a front-facing window, the X-59 will have a monitor which uses two cameras outside the aircraft combined with terrain data, to show the pilot where they’re going. The whole setup is called the eXternal Visibility System or XVS. Lockheed Martin has presented its Quiet Supersonic Technology Airliner, a sleek twin-engined jet plane that would carry up to 40 passengers at speeds of Mach 1.8, it was revealed last week at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in Dallas. This aircraft would, according to Lockheed Martin, have a range of about 5,200 nautical miles, covering routes such as New York-London, Tokyo-Los Angeles, London-Beijing and Tokyo-Sydney. However, emissions will be a concern and the different engineering teams should try to address this issue.

At the other end of the scale, electric flying taxis cold also make an appearance within the next five years. Uber, Airbus and several other companies are competing in this potentially lucrative transport segment. If all goes according to plan, Uber Air flying taxis will take off in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Melbourne in 2023. (Uber already has a similar conventional helicopter service in some cities). The electric VTOLs (vertical take-off and landing vehicles) are similar to a helicopter, and will carry four passengers at low altitude from skyports in each area. Uber has also partnered with architecture and design firms for designing the Skyports.

Airbus has the Vahana (Sanskrit for vehicle) autonomous flying taxi concept while helicopter maker Bell is also joining the bandwagon with its Nexus concept. Boeing too has a prototype. Do not expect these services to be cheap at least initially – one guide is Uber’s pricing for the existing JFK Airport-Manhattan app-based on-demand helicopter service – around US$ 200 for an eight-minute flight. But over the course of a decade or more, the prices would become comparable to those of ground based taxi or ride sharing services.

We are seeing an exciting time in terms of aviation, when several technologies are competing for viability. With travel predicted to grow exponentially, these technologies would help us connect with more people at a faster pace. And that is always a good thing.