Tech advances in commercial air industry?
October 29, 2008 5:55 AM   Subscribe

What technological advances are we likely to see in the commercial airline industry over the next 25 years?

This is really a two-part question.

First, how close are airlines to implementing fully automated take-off and landing (that is, with a pilot perhaps just overseeing the process)? Is this simply a technical problem or rather a commercial one in that passengers are just unwilling to accept it?

Second, is turbulence something that is susceptible to technological innovation, or is it something that is just a given with powered flight?
posted by modernnomad to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total)
There is already autolanding.
posted by nitsuj at 6:26 AM on October 29, 2008

Also: when do pilots use the autopilot?
posted by nitsuj at 6:27 AM on October 29, 2008

Nuclear-powered planes? (Perhaps a bit beyond the 25 year horizon... but then again, who knows when the Singularity will occur...)
posted by BobbyVan at 6:33 AM on October 29, 2008

Turbulence is an atmospheric phenomenon. I think you're asking if tech can minimize the effects of turbulence? Well...sort of....

Depending on the severity, most autopilot systems can compensate pretty well. But a really bumpy ride is simply that, and no amount of wizardry in an airplane is going to make the air around it more stable. Pilots, at the [assenger airline level, work very hard to find smooth air for the comfort of the passengers.

I'm afraid turbulence is simply a fact of flight, powered or unpowered.
posted by Thistledown at 6:40 AM on October 29, 2008

Flying cars. Srsly.
posted by mandal at 6:56 AM on October 29, 2008

I seriously, seriously doubt that nuclear planes will get off the ground (heh) any time in the near future. Safeguarding a reactor against an airplane's natural environment (which can include pretty severe vibration and shock during normal flight, let alone crash conditions) require way too much weight and bulk to make it feasible for flight.

If you could introduce some sort of predictive modeling into autopilots, that would be pretty cool. Atmosphere is incredibly difficult to model, unfortunately, especially at such a micro level as the, say, 100 ft bubble around an airliner. You're going to have to deal with the bumps for now.

You're going to see much more subtle advances on aircraft over the next 25 years. New technologies are so very expensive to introduce to the aviation industry that most of what happens nowadays are very tiny baby steps. Composites have been around for decades, but only within the past 5-10 years have they really started to be adopted by manufacturers.

So what are some reasonable guesses? More exotic materials is my best estimate. More use of composites - you'll probably see an all-composite airliner within 25 years (currently, only certain pieces use composites; the rest is still extruded aluminum and aluminum honeycomb). Engines will get more powerful, lighter, and more fuel-efficient due to new alloys that can handle the extreme heat and tolerances required inside of turbines.

With the way the economy is (and the nature of the airline industry in general), I think the US airlines will slow down or stop purchasing new airplanes and one of two things will happen - they'll start leasing like a lot of the rest of the world does, or they'll pump more money in to modernizing their aging fleet (what the Air Force does). That means new engines, new wings, new avionics.

Ah, avionics, yes. Airlines are seriously lacking in good avionics. That's the funny thing about aviation (at least in the US) - general aviation generally has the better gear in the cockpit. Airlines are hesitant to purchase new avionics because there's no direct cost improvement or draw for the passenger, and certification by manufacturers is costly and time consuming. I spoke to the pilot on a recent trip I took, and they still use a combination of aural and textual (printouts received over radio) weather briefings from their dispatchers.

Anyway, avionics improvements you'll see (some of which are happening now) - new glass in the cockpit which includes Primary Flight Displays and Multifunction Displays. HUDs seem to be gaining popularity, as well as infrared (think FLIR) and Synthetic Vision. ADS-B should gain more acceptance, hopefully, as well as improved one-way and two-way datalink services for real-time graphical and textual weather information overlayed on top of your shiny new moving map.

And finally... LAAS. Once the FAA gets its head out of its ass, this is going to be big. Local Area Augmentation Systems basically increase the accuracy of GPS by using ground receivers to augment and provide local corrections to GPS signals which are then received on the aircraft by a VHF radio. What does this mean? You can use your GPS to do instrument approaches down to (eventually) Cat III conditions - zero ceiling, zero visibility. It's cheaper to maintain than current systems (you only need one for a significantly large area, compared to, say, one ILS per runway direction). It's potentially much more accurate than ILS, and you don't have to worry about all the annoying distortion that traditional ILS has from the radio waves bouncing off of, say, hangers and other airplanes.

I know this all sounds pretty mundane, but that's how the industry works. Nobody outside of government labs is doing any research that will not provide a direct cost benefit within 5-10 years. There's simply no point to it, really.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:59 AM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some other thoughts, re: cabin amenities. More seat-back TVs, wireless internet, and cell phone access. This is all happening now, and I really don't think that bill that recently passed banning cell phone use in airplanes is going to last long.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:01 AM on October 29, 2008

My attempt at brainstorming:

Increased use of composites and exotic materials in construction,
Increased cockpit automation (possibly including auto landing/takeoff.)
Better ground control and runway management
Better collision avoidance
Furhter deployment of microwave landing system
Improved air traffic control
Increased fuel economy (using non-ducted counterrotating turboprops, etc.)
Better flight management
Better scheduling and load balancing
Improved aircraft reliability
Increase passenger technology (comm and internet onboard)

Google "National airspace plan"
posted by FauxScot at 7:12 AM on October 29, 2008


Anyone have time to write a FPP on this?
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:19 AM on October 29, 2008

Another link
posted by Kickstart70 at 7:20 AM on October 29, 2008

One of the new things that has made its way into airplanes lately is Active Noise Reduction in the cabin. The Q400 (the big-ass turboprop that you see Continental Express and a few others flying with the six-bladed props) has it in the cabin for cutting noise. Pretty nice, actually.
posted by Thistledown at 7:24 AM on October 29, 2008

Bigger planes. It seems that companies and consumers have forgone the idea of smaller aircraft at fast speeds for larger aircraft at slower speeds. Having randomly spoken to a guy in the industry last year, he says this is at least the current trend, and that many of the planes getting built for release in the future are able to hold more passengers.
posted by metalheart at 7:39 AM on October 29, 2008

Ok, one more thing to mention. Significant changes to the "look and feel" of an airliner are highly dependent on passenger psychology as well as any gains made by the technology. The best example I can think of is Boeing's Blended Wing Body concept from awhile ago; the determination not to develop it was partly based on the fact that a large proportion of the passengers would have no access to windows. Sort of a similar reason why subways have windows - it's disconcerting to passengers to not have them, even if there's nothing to look at.

I don't think MLS is going to get anywhere outside of the armed forces because of the costs involved. LAAS is much more flexible and potentially requires only software changes to existing GPS units. MLS would require new equipment on board which is much costlier than software.

Airport management is good thinking, especially if the hub system we currently have continues for any length of time. Airports are getting increasingly congested and runway incursions/ground incidents are of significant concern to the FAA.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:42 AM on October 29, 2008

I predict bunkbeds in premium economy for long-haul flights.
posted by smackfu at 9:33 AM on October 29, 2008

Excellent question and good answers so far.

I believe we will not see any major changes to the aircraft structure over the next 25 years. Airplanes will still be a large cylinder bolted on a wing. However, I see the implementation of active aeroelastic wing to replace (or at lease assist) flaps and acuators.

I see major progress in engines to increase power, reduce weight and reduce emissions through the use of new lightweight heat resistant alloys such as ME16 and TiAl Intermetallics (aka titanium-aluminide).

I pessimist about the increased use of composites and other exotic materials for the airframe structure. I predict (and I hope i'm wrong) serious operational problems for composites aircrafts such as the 787 or learjet 85. At best we'll see widespread use newer aluminum alloys such as 7085 or AS7U1G. Ferrium steel also looks promising for high strength applications. Aircraft manufacturers and structural engineers are very conservative when it comes to new materials. Nobody want to design the aircraft that will serve as the guinea pig for that new exotic material.

So, in 25 years, you will see airplanes that looks the same as today, but that are lighter, more efficient, quieter and, hopefully, more reliable. Sadly, I don't think we'll find an innovation that could drastically increase the reliability of airplanes.
posted by racingjs at 9:42 AM on October 29, 2008

Note that with the advent of better weather tracking, commercial flights are better able to simply avoid 'bad air' and minimize turbulence that way.

Simply better understanding your operating environment is a huge step.
posted by johnstein at 10:00 AM on October 29, 2008

Sidequestion - I'm seeing references to LAAS. I thought it was WAAS - Wide Area Augmentation System, which allows the ability to fly a very accurate GPS-derived glideslope on an approach?

Technology doesn't dictate many trends in commercial aviation - as mentioned earlier - the General Aviation and BizJet market have much more advanced avionics systems. Recently, they've been including synthetic vision systems on certain aircraft, for example. You won't find that on many commercial airliners, if at all. I do know for a fact that some cargo carriers are using DC-9s and B-727s with basic VOR and ADF navigation - that's 1950's and 1960's radio-beacon technology. That's it - no GPS, even.

Cost, however, does tend to dictate a lot of trends. When the price of oil was ridicululously low, you saw a lot of airlines using regional jets and phasing out the turboprops, because people liked being on jets better, no matter how cramped they are. But on most but a few routes, RJs are more costly to operate per seat mile, and some airlines are returning to turboprops for shorter-haul operations. The Q400, (which I mentioned earlier) is a pretty damn big airplane - some pilots call it the megawhacker - but it burns less gas over a certain duration (I'm told) than a jet and is thus more cost effective to fly. This coming from a friend who captains one.
posted by Thistledown at 10:10 AM on October 29, 2008

LAAS and WAAS differ in how they correct the GPS signal. WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) uses ground stations to transmit corections up to WAAS satellites, and that signal is picked up by your GPS receiver.

LAAS (Local Area Augmentation System), called GBAS or Ground Based Augmentation System outside of the US civil aviation world, uses ground receivers at airports to generate very localized corrections which are then sent out over VHF. It's more expensive to maintain than WAAS because you need more ground stations (probably one per airport or small cluster of airports) and you need a VHF receiver in the airplane, but is much more accurate than WAAS.

WAAS can potentially provide instrument approaches with Category I accuracy, similar to a typical VOR or ILS approach, but LAAS will be able to provide <Cat III - zero visibility, zero ceiling required to land. Add syn vis and infrared and you could fly any time the winds allow, visibility be damned. Pretty cool stuff.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:50 AM on October 29, 2008

Oh, and while WAAS is already implemented, LAAS is still in a bit of a prototype state right now. WAAS instrument approaches are slowly being released as more GPS receivers get WAAS capability, but no airliners have LAAS yet. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem; only a handful of airports have LAAS right now as test systems. The FAA doesn't want to invest money in it until it gains wider acceptance, but the airlines don't want to pay for expensive avionics until there are more airports where they can be used.

To give you an idea of lead times for these technologies, I have a hiking GPS from 1998 or so that has WAAS, but (general aviation) aircraft GPS systems didn't start getting WAAS until a year or two ago.
posted by backseatpilot at 10:58 AM on October 29, 2008

emissions controls.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2008

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