The Future of Aviation

February 5th, 2014 by John Petersen

Most of us have a hard time thinking effectively about the future of something like aviation. The problem is one of both context and chronology. First of all, if we’re personally involved with aviation we almost always think about its future possibilities in terms that are presently understood. We extrapolate from the past and what we now understand, always relating our sense of the future to a narrow perspective of how the present system works.

For example, it’s unlikely that if asked about the aviation industry a decade from now you would factor in the potential effect of a radical global shift in climate . . . or a forecast collapse of the global financial system . . . or picture the beginning of an age of electric airliners. That’s a problem, because aviation – and every other aspect of our lives – exists as a component of a system . . . a very complicated system that includes a host of things like the state of the global climate that can fundamentally change the context, and future, of aviation.

The problem of perspicacity is also related to our larger understanding of where we are in the giant sweep of history. As it happens, we are all living in a period of exponential change unprecedented in human history. Throughout science and technology – and most other sectors – amazing new capabilities are manifesting themselves daily. Furthermore, the time for these new inventions to become commercialized is also decreasing at an exponential rate. They are inserting themselves into our lives at a faster and faster pace.

This means, among other things, that in order to support the exponential increase in invention and discovery there must necessarily be major breakthroughs in our understanding and the technologies that are available for building and operating air transport systems. The exponential curve is not smooth; it is a series of rather dramatic breakthroughs, one following another at an increasingly rapid pace that result in seemingly vertical change.

Just recently, for example, it was announced that a new version of the material graphene has been developed that is 300 times stronger than steel and lighter than current carbon fiber materials. The potential implications of this material clearly could revolutionize the way we build current aircraft. But add that to advances being made in battery technology, superconductivity in polymers, and electric power trains developed for automobiles, among many other things, and suddenly you have the converging of the components for a large electric aircraft – something that is generally discounted by most people in the business today.

So, not only are there many more disruptive factors coming into the aviation space, but the rate of change is accelerating.

John Petersen

John L. Petersen is a futurist, strategist, and pilot. He is a former aircraft carrier based naval aviator, aircraft builder, and author of three books. He founded The Arlington Institute, edits and publishes the free e-newsletter FUTUREdition, and is the chairman of the Lindbergh Foundation.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • John

    Powerful new technologies seem to emerge at an ever increasing rate, however the much more important issue is how human beings will use them. In the late 70s I was privileged to work on one of the first generation of microprocessors when one of my colleagues said “These things will make slaves of us some day”. I corrected him with “No, it won’t do that, but the person controlling it will”.

    Highly centralized power and control is incompatible with a free society; yet this emerging technology we rave about will allow every action and movement to be tracked, recorded, regulated, (and eventually) taxed. Project this into the GA space and today’s freedom of flight simply reduces to an expensive vending machine ride operated by the government. Unless we stop it now, future avionics will speak into your headset “Your taxi fee will be $300 to taxi to the active runway…press Accept to proceed”.

    • Colin Malaker

      YIKES!! Man that is not fun to think about. Best I stick my head back in this hole

    • John Nagy

      You are a moron. There is no global warming. That statement tells me you are incompetent and your article is meaningless. I’m a pilot and can tell you aviation will slowly fade away. It’s a simple matter of economics. Our boy president is adopting policies which put people out of work. Few people have the money to pay for ever increasing aircraft expenses.

      • Donald

        Amen

      • John

        @John Nagy everybody has a right to be stupid, racist, and low-information now and then…but you my dear sir abuse the privilege

  • Colin Malaker

    Mr Petersen,

    Do you know of any companies researching/developing or have developed a graphene product suitable for aircraft structures? I do not see any out there in my searches, but would like to speak to them about the potential of using this on an aircraft design I have just completed and am on the verge of bringing to market in the next few years. Thanks

  • Wha?

    Please. Every generation says this and it’s as useless now as it was when “futurists” marveled about the speed of the Model T and worried about the harm to trains’ passengers when they approached the 50 mph “barrier.” Characterizing advancements in materials and technologies as “disruptive” is one way that “experts” justify controlling them by subsidizing their implementation and penalizing the product or technology being “disrupted.” Incandescent light bulb technology was “disrupted” by CFL’s and LED’s, right? Well, only if incandescent bulbs were made illegal and the “disruptive” technology was subsidized. So, now we’re left with glaring white lights that make our living rooms look like operating rooms and having to call in a HazMat team when a CFL breaks…and that’s if the silly thing doesn’t burst into flame (yes, I’ve seen it with my own eyes). This is just one example of how our experts overestimating themselves and results in bad policy with negative effects on real people. Another might be the great idea to make ethanol for fuel out of corn. Terrific, use a government subsidy to make it seem economically feasible so that people figure it’s better to burn our food than eat it. Rather than justifying experts picking winners and losers because they’re the only ones who understand how to handle “disruptive” technologies, let natural market forces guide product development. Go ahead and develop the plastic airplane that transports 1,000 passengers and supersonic speeds if you can afford it on your own dime but, in the meantime, don’t penalize the rest of us with “carbon offsets” on the airplanes we have here and now to fund that pipe dream.

    • Donald

      Amen

  • Dietrich Fecht

    About the future of electric powered aircraft I am very sceptical from a technical and physical standpoint.

    Enough energy to move an airplane through the air over a distance has to come from somewhere. And here photovoltaic electrical power through sunrays is simply not enough by far to produce flying condition comparable with that what we see with todays aircraft. The same is true with electric energy storage in batteries. The amount necessary is even not possible by far, do to the weight of the batteries what are known now and in the foreseeable future. Energy storage in form of liquid fuels as we have it today is the only thinkable and practical solution in the foreseeable future.

    Please have in mind, that the energy needed to overcome the different forces to make flying possible is not only a question of weight. It is mainly a question of overcoming the drag in cruise flight when something like an airplane (and other vehicles too) is forced to move through air. So faster an airplane moves so relatively less important becomes the weight and more important the aerodynamically form and size of the vehicle. And that can not be avoided if volume (freight and passengers), beside the importance of weight, has to be transported over distances.

    • Dan Winkelman

      Exactly. Weight is an important part… but even if you build the entire airplane out of a material that weighs nothing, to be useful you’re still hauling people and/or goods over some distance. The people and goods have mass. You’re back to creating aerodynamic lift to get that mass off the ground, and thereby producing induced drag.

      We have a lot of room for improvement over today’s status-quo. Materials like graphene may make a sizeable dent in the amount of energy we currently consume to fly, but getting to the point where electrical power densities are high enough and the airframe+energy source+powerplant mass is low enough to move useful quantities of people and stuff over useful distances is a long ways off… I’m 30, and don’t expect to see electric airliners in my lifetime. Affordable electric Light Sports for weekend play? Absolutely. But the engineering challenges to be overcome for long and heavy haul are MUCH greater.

  • Joseph

    It is amazing how society is unable to comprehend the geometric progression of technology even though there are numerous examples of it. One just has to look at the $billions splurge that Google has gone on in robotics and AI and has one of the foremost thinkers on AI as their CTO. Just look at IBM’s Watson. In two years it went from a room size computer to a pizza box size computer while increasing power 240%. And now it is in the cloud and available for programming apps. To the younger generation this is all going to be second nature. It is the mid-life folk that are going to have a very tough time adjusting.