Technology, demand, and capability are intersecting at a point in aviation that could revolutionize air travel, according to innovators at EAA AirVenture.
As warbirds rumbled across the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, skies July 24, attendees at the Lindbergh Innovation Forum learned about new projects—silent aircraft, urban air mobility, and more—during nine talks from experts on the leading edge of the aviation industry.
Electric flight is one of the key areas that could usher in the transformation.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Eagle Flight Research Center Pat Anderson said the aviation industry needs to rethink aircraft design to better leverage electric propulsion. Using the example of the aircraft design transformation that occurred as a result of the jet engine, Anderson said electric aircraft need to look very different from current aircraft. Fitting electric motors on existing airframes isn’t the answer, but putting multiple electric motors on an aircraft that resembles the flying machines in Avatar might prove more efficient. And, according to Anderson, the aviation industry might be only five to 10 years away from such an aircraft. A market for urban air mobility, advances in electric population, and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards as an alternative to FAA Part 23 certification could help spur the movement, he said.
“You can fly missions that you couldn’t fly before, maybe because of noise,” Anderson said, explaining that thousands of helicopters couldn’t fly into cities because of noise. Quieter electric aircraft could allow that.
Anderson was quick to point out that these aircraft would replace cars, not helicopters—their purpose to move people around cities more efficiently in the third dimension and cut down on congestion.
That’s a concept Uber Elevate has been researching and investing in heavily.
Adam Warmoth, Uber Elevate’s vehicle requirements lead, said the company seeks to ease city traffic congestion by offering aerial ridesharing. Uber Elevate has studied how people move around in Los Angeles and analyzed the data to optimize a network. They’ve studied electric propulsion, weight distribution, and load factors anticipated on the aircraft, and determined a model they think will work. The company would offer 25-mile short hops, with rapid battery charging at each of those stops, for three-hour sprints. With aircraft traveling at about 150 mph, this would allow them to move people quickly from one side of a city to another. Warmoth said three-hour sprints are possible with the battery technology that’s available today.
The company is working with Pipistrel, Bell, Embraer, Aurora, and Karem Aircraft as well as academic institutions to advance the technology and air taxi concept. Warmoth said Uber Elevate plans to begin demonstration flights in 2020, with operational flights in Los Angeles and Dallas starting in 2023. Air taxi concepts are illustrated on Uber Elevate’s website.
While urban air mobility is one of the main focuses for future aircraft technology, moving people and goods around the world more efficiently and more economically is another, and it’s one area where Boeing continues to study and innovate.
“You can create some truly wonderful things” when technology, requirements, and capability intersect, said Mike Sinnett, chief engineer on the Boeing 787 and now the vice president of product strategy and future airplane development for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. For example, he said, who would have imagined “a plastic airplane that can fly halfway around the world nonstop”? That’s the Boeing 787.
Boeing estimates that the airlines will need 42,700 new jets valued at $6.3 trillion in the next 20 years, generating a need for about 800,000 new pilots. To help meet these demands, Boeing’s experts are focusing on technologies ranging from personal air vehicles to small and mid-size cargo delivery, and on ways to augment pilot decision making on jets.
Sinnett said aviation was a risky mode of transportation in the 1920s, but today it is the safest mode, and Boeing is working to bring that level of safety to all segments of aviation.
Recordings of all of the talks will be available on the Lindbergh Innovation Forum website.