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Pace of aviation innovation picks upPace of aviation innovation picks up

New and modern avionics reaching the affordable end of the general aviation fleet was not the only trend of 2017 that stands to reshape aviation in 2018 and beyond. Significant strides were made toward development of practical electric aircraft, not all of which will require wings. Also in the year that was, a high-tech glider set a new altitude record, new technology sped up search and rescue, and competing quests to return civilians to supersonic speed continued.

XTI Aircraft Company is collaborating with Bye Aerospace to build a hybrid-electric prototype of the TriFan 600 design. Image courtesy of XTI Aircraft Co.

The FAA’s reform of Part 23 aircraft certification regulation took effect Aug. 30, a development that promises to bring significant changes to the GA fleet in the form of safer, more advanced, and more affordable aircraft designs in the years to come. The regulatory overhaul was part of a larger shift in the approach to regulating aircraft and components to performance-based, consensus standards that is already bearing fruit. AOPA Pilot Editor Ian Twombly took a deeper look in December at the fruits of the new regulatory approach, a fast-growing array of autopilots, instruments, and other devices that are entering service in certified aircraft at an increasing pace.

The proliferation of lower-cost avionics included Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers, annunciator panels like the FlexAlert Multifunction Annunciator, and an external data module for GA that looks quite a bit like a bomb and provides a potentially lifesaving source of attitude, position, angle of attack, and other data. These and many other new products benefited from the new approach taken by regulators to speed the approval of safety-enhancing equipment.

The cost of equipment that will meet the coming mandate to equip aircraft with ADS-B Out capability for flight in airspace where a Mode C transponder is currently required after Jan. 1, 2020, also edged down, with new options arriving from Garmin and others. The increasing proximity of that ADS-B deadline may have contributed to an uptick in installations reported by the Aircraft Electronics Association.

The application of existing technology in new ways also bore fruit in 2017, such as the Civil Air Patrol’s National Radar Analysis Team, which helped facilitate speedy rescues of pilots and passengers from downed aircraft in remote and snowy terrain early in 2017.

NASA made significant strides toward the planned first flight of its all-electric X-plane in 2018, completing in December successful testing of the electric power system that includes protection against thermal runaway by isolating damaged cells. The research promises to contribute to a broader effort that includes big-name manufacturers seeking to produce practical electric aircraft in sizes ranging from single seaters to commuter airlines.

The shape of aircraft poised to take flight in 2018 and beyond is also changing. George Bye, developer of the all-electric Sun Flyer, joined XTI Aircraft Co. in the development of the TriFan prototype, a six-seat, vertical-takeoff-and-landing concept that promises airplane speeds and 1,200-mile cruise range. The company brought a mockup to the National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas, and reported in October that a 60-percent scale prototype would fly in 2018.

Hybrid-electric propulsion also may prove the key to astounding speed, with at least one of several efforts to return civilians to supersonic flight in business jets and small airliners relying on such a powerplant. Another technologically advanced aircraft, the Perlan 2 glider, reached near-stratospheric height in September, setting a new glider altitude record without benefit of any powerplant at all.

Flying higher still, Blue Origin won the Collier Trophy with its $1 billion civilian spaceflight program, and went on to be a hit with the crowds at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July. Virgin Galactic, meanwhile, continued to make progress toward launching the age of space tourism, announcing that a space test flight (albeit unmanned) was within reach for 2018. Scaled Composites, one of the companies working with billionaire Richard Branson on that program, also celebrated the first flight of the V-tail Model 401, a single-engine experimental jet created in part to test and demonstrate advanced, low-cost manufacturing techniques.

Other new aircraft programs promise a more radical departure from traditional design, including a few in development that draw on the unmanned aircraft world, such as the SureFly personal rotorcraft, a multirotor design in development that uses a hybrid electric propulsion system and sports two seats, which caught the eye of AirVenture visitors including AOPA Senior Vice President of Media, Outreach, and Communications Tom Haines. The company announced Jan. 3 that the FAA has granted experimental airworthiness certification that clears the way for test flights this month.

Topics: Technology

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