Illustration by Tom Whalen
General aviation’s future depends on dealing with higher costs and on making do with less, says industry analyst Richard Aboulafia. Either the industry sinks under the weight of current issues—including rising fuel prices, user fees, or more expensive airplanes—or technology comes to the rescue. Let’s root for technological optimists.
“For general aviation in 2089 you’d have to be a technological optimist—you just have to—because of all of these pressures,” he said. “That means advanced propulsion is going to allow us to make do with less; greater autonomy is going to allow us to do more with less; greater materials choices in the fabrication of airframes is going to allow us to make do with less; more efficient air traffic management and airport procedures are going to allow us to do more with less room; more efficient flying procedures are going to allow us to make do with less. It’s all about making do with less. So much of that comes down to technology.”
You hopefully end up with a future that is “good enough,” but perhaps not one featured in “The Jetsons” cartoons of the 1960s and 1980s. “Technological futurism that borders on utopia almost never works out,” Aboulafia said. “Usually we find a way to make do, muddle through, and live in a pretty good world. On the other hand, the whole Amazon octocopter thing [a proposal to deliver packages by drone]—you can go too far with the optimism,” he said.
John Hansman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, estimates the Amazon shipping cost by drone to be $100 to $200. The FAA currently estimates that as many as 7,500 small commercial drones may be in use by 2018, assuming the necessary regulations are in place. The number may be updated when the agency publishes the proposed rule on small unmanned aircraft systems later this year.
Under the “good enough” view, newly built airplanes look much the same as in 2014. “The airplanes from a configuration standpoint will be not as different as you might expect,” said Hansman. “It will be standard to have airplanes built out of composites. The planforms will be things that would be recognizable today. They won’t be that radically different. The cockpit and avionics are where they will be much more radically different.”
A majority of those interviewed agree that avionics will provide the greatest advances. Aviation analyst Brian Foley describes the cockpit of the future this way: “The flight plan will be shared directly between the airplane and air traffic control in real time. Guidance for startup, taxi, and takeoff will initiate from this information. A master air traffic computer will communicate with each aircraft to optimize flights and provide separation and weather avoidance. Synthetic vision will advance to allow the pilot to look out the window and see outside as if it were a clear day, even at night or in weather—analogous to the projected window views in today’s simulators. These advances will improve safety and allow an increase in total movements through precise timing of takeoffs and landings and reduction in separation minimums.”
“There’s going to be a very, very brilliant co-pilot with access to all kinds of information,” said aviation futurist and AOPA “Opinion Leader” blogger John Petersen. “Even aircraft skin will have processors sensing temperatures, wing loading, whatever, and feeding it to the pilot.”
Tyson Weihs, CEO and cofounder of ForeFlight, agrees. “Computers get more powerful, go into more places, and get smaller and lighter. That means that computing power is distributed throughout the aircraft. Everything gets smarter. The amount of computing horsepower you can put into materials gets to be interesting. The material actually comes alive.
“If past trends [are an indicator], communication gets faster and faster and applications tend to consume it all. That means aircraft in the future will be really chatty. What you may see is much less pilot-to-national-airspace communication. The aircraft becomes aware and the aircraft and system sort of operate in a unified manner. There’s no more tuning of radios. There’s no more programming of clearances into an avionics system. All of that is preformulated and updated as you fly. That doesn’t mean humans are out of the loop. There will be much less human in the loop.” Pilots will do little but monitor the airplane’s decisions.
“I think there will be a whole segment of aviation that is done by autonomous airplanes,” said Joe Hepburn, senior vice president for customer support at Cessna Aircraft. “There is a huge use for autonomous products that serve a specific niche function, whether you want to talk about border patrol, real estate, or communications.”
John Uczekaj, Aspen Avionics president and CEO, has introduced a product called Connected Panel, linking a pilot’s smart devices with the avionics panel to enter and synchronize flight plans. “One day a guy flying a 172 will have interconnectivity similar to the iPhone. In an airplane environment that’s a major step,” he said. A well connected airplane can learn where the bad weather is and divert by itself, or discover delays at the airport ahead and fit the aircraft into the flow that air traffic control needs. He predicted that the projection of synthetic vision on the windscreen, mentioned above by Foley, is “right around the corner.”
MIT’s Hansman was asked to describe what he might see during a visit to the local airport in 2089. “There are some things you are not seeing,” he said. “You are not seeing leaded fuel. That’s long gone.
“We have the leaded fuel challenge that as far as I know there is no easy way around. The issues are real. There is no alternative to these high-compression engines. Once we pull the trigger to the next generation of airplanes, you can go to diesel. We definitely will see diesels in the future.”
Agreeing with that is Rhett Ross of Chinese-owned Continental Motors, a company that is counting heavily on the diesel-engine market in the future. “The international small aircraft market is going to go through a renaissance as places like Africa, China, South America, Pacific Rim, and eventually, India embrace the benefits of small aircraft,” Ross said. “This will be facilitated by adoption of a common fuel [Jet-A/diesel] with large aircraft. The primary reason for a single fuel is logistics and economics more than anything else. I believe that this market will rival the North American and European markets in their heyday. They may not get us back to 10,000 units plus in small aircraft production, but they will certainly drive us north of 5,000 per annum.”
He is not as optimistic about hybrid electric aircraft. “Hybrid will occur in aircraft,” Ross aid. “It will not really become truly viable as a passenger-carrying, long-haul option until the ultracapacitor or similar higher-power-density device can be mated with a fuel-based engine. The laws of physics still apply. Batteries will not be light enough or stable enough, based on my understanding of this industry, to meet the weight restrictions of aircraft.”
Analyst Foley offers this view of future propulsion: “New piston aircraft will have moved towards purpose-designed aero-diesel engines which are more efficient, don’t need leaded gasoline, and have a friendlier carbon footprint. By the time 75 years roll around, advances in technology could make diesel-electric or hydrogen hybrid engines a reality.”
“While in the United States 100 low lead is still widely available and has a terrific distribution chain, the rest of the world is taking us to a place where Jet-A is the preferred answer,” said Cessna’s Hepburn. He’s not expecting electric airplanes to be developed by 2089. “Electrical propulsion is always interesting to talk about, but as we all know, battery management for all the little devices we carry becomes kind of onerous—and it’s really tough to stop and plug in.”
None of the above sounds good for the future of all-electric aircraft, but futurist Petersen strongly believes a company called Volta Volaré has the greatest chance for success. “By the end of this next year you’ll have a four-place electric airplane that has 1,000-mile range and flies at 170 knots and will recharge in 15 minutes. Charging stations will be added to FBOs,” Petersen said.
Paul Peterson (similar last name but a different spelling) of Volta Volaré confirmed the information and said the company—which specializes in battery and energy management technology, and just happens to have an aircraft factory—is test flying such an aircraft.
Futurist Petersen didn’t stop there, having once worked with a company developing levitation using gyroscopes (the attempt, ultimately, didn’t fly). “There are at least four companies working on levitation and antigravity. It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen. Airplanes won’t even look like airplanes anymore,” he said.
Tom Peghiny, a founder of the Light Sport aircraft (LSA) industry and a dealer for its top-selling model, Flight Design, predicts that two-seat Light Sport aircraft—already known for technological innovation—may one day use electric propulsion. “The current LSA fleet might exist in a similar fashion to how we have Pietenpol Aircampers [designed in 1932] and OX-5-powered biplanes , either converted over to electric powerplants or special-use waivers running on biofuel with double carbon credits.”
For years flying cars have captured the imagination of the press and the public. By 2089 they could be common, right? There’s a bit of disagreement on that.
A Boeing official said he can’t imagine there will not be flying cars by 2089, and in a lot less time than 75 years. Flying cars will be available as a niche market for the general public, the way $70,000 Tesla electric cars are available today, in 20 to 25 years, said 25-year Boeing technical analyst Jake Schultz. All the current efforts to get a flying car to market, even unsuccessful ones, are steps along the way, he added. For those with long commutes and the financial means, a flying car will expand life choices, he said. Schultz personally has a 34-mile commute to Boeing.
Terrafugia CEO Carl Dietrich in Woburn, Massachusetts, trained by MIT’s Hansman, says it will take only two to five years before he can deliver a flying car to a customer who is either a pilot or is willing to complete pilot training—as opposed to the nonpilot general public. The company has demonstrated its Transition model in flight, but proposes a TF-X hybrid-electric flying car with intelligent systems for the future.
Disagreeing with the concept of flying cars is Continental’s Ross, “I do not think that the current flying car concept makes any sense,” he said. “However, I do believe that modern robotics [as seen in drones] and computing technology will result in self-driving cars. Eventually, as a better energy source is seen, I see that [form of] transportation may take to the air, but not in the way we think of it today.”
Cessna’s Hepburn had a similar view. “I don’t believe that the convergence of winged automotive transportation and winged airplane transportation necessarily fit efficiently together in a design,” he said.
There is even greater disagreement about flying cars that land vertically at your home, to the horror of your local homeowners association. “Money will still trump technology every time,” said Aboulafia. “There’s an awful lot that we would like as technology fans that just doesn’t work out economically. Vertical takeoff and landing has been a prime example of that. It’s really expensive. Going faster than 150 knots with a rotorcraft is still extremely expensive after 50 years of trying. I would bet that cost premium isn’t going away. There are not going to be Jetsons flooding the highways in the sky.”
Is China going to buy America’s aviation industry? It appeared so by 2014 with the purchase of Continental Motors, Cirrus, Sherpa, and Mooney. Ed Smith of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association says that isn’t the case.
“I wouldn’t venture a guess on what China is going to own,” he said. “I know they have a very strong interest in developing an indigenous GA manufacturing industry in China. Let the market and the community develop from the ground up [in China], and that will foster its own indigenous innovation and industry. It’s always difficult to transplant industries from one country to another, one culture to another.” To do that, they need to buy technology from the United States.
“It’s a growing market right now. Any market that’s growing at double digits looks extremely attractive. You’ve got to remember it is growing at double digits from an extremely low base. Even the absolute numbers of planes imported are not that huge.” He noted the country is rapidly building airports. As airspace restrictions drop, Chinese people may want to fly for recreation, and that will foster a general aviation industry, he said. Natural disasters have shown Chinese officials the need for helicopters.
China is seen in the future as more of a technology customer than an innovator. “We’re in a race to advance technology before our problems catch up with us. They’re in a race to get rich before they get old. That’s a big challenge,” said Aboulafia.
Obviously no one can know what breakthroughs lie ahead, only that they are rapidly accelerating. It’s like asking Abraham Lincoln for a 75-year forecast that included cars, radio, television, and jet airplanes—let alone biplanes—by 1940. Technology advanced more slowly then.
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Humorous looks ahead
AOPA members were asked in the “I Was Wondering” forum on AOPA.org for predictions on general aviation in 2089. Here’s a sampling.