Flying Trains on Tracks

July 23rd, 2014 by John Petersen

You can’t look at the emerging future of aviation without being interested in drones.  Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are going to explode in the coming years.  No matter what your area of focus – agriculture, power generation and exploration, wildlife management and protection, news gathering, law enforcement, military, personal entertainment,  etc., the list goes on and on – there’s a drone in your future.

I’ve been specifically looking at drones lately for a specific project (that I’ll mention in a later post), and I’m impressed with the options and versatility of what is available for things like fighting poachers in Africa, just as a starter.

There are a host of small, model-aircraft-like platforms with very sophisticated sensor packages and GPS-based capabilities – most a byproduct of military development – that start around US$ 10,000 and go up from there.  The sky is literally the limit.

In this case, the limit may well be the concept that the folks at Biosphere, LLC and their Dorsal drone air freighter project.  This is really quite intriguing.  They have a number of models on the drawing boards, starting with their Quad aircraft (shown below) that is designed to establish a new commerce transportation bridge across oceans. Quad

This is an all-cargo, unpressurized aircraft with standardized containers that become an integral part of the structure of the aircraft.  It will have a 362,000 pound useful load capacity and a range of 8,400 nm.

With people removed from the aircraft, it can now fly in the most fuel efficient method, which usually means slower and lower altitudes resulting lower fuel costs.· In addition, weird looking heavy load configurations are possible as there would be no people on board requiring aesthetic design and noise reduction considerations.· McDonnell Douglas once had a program testing an unducted prop fan.· Even though it showed potential of having fuel savings of 30% or more, it was never pursued because the cabin noise would have been higher and it needed to fly slower than other jet aircraft.

Smart ‘load sensing’ containers are equipped with interlocks which connect together to become a structural load carrying component of the airframe. In commercial transport this could result in twice the payload delivered for the same amount of fuel.pic2

World trade today is standardized on Intermodal containers that can be shipped via cargo ships, trains, and trucks.  However, aircraft systems have developed their own LD containers and pallet systems, primarily because if they carried containers, the container weight would reduce the overall payload the aircraft is able to carry.  With today’s fuel costs, the drive to go to extremes to eliminate weight can be seen with the costs of developing new lighter systems such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 aircraft.

Re-purposing unmanned military aircraft is as simple as changing the Dorsal Pods (containers).  Logistics supply, mid-air fuel tanker, attack platform and more -  all with the same single drone airframe.

An interesting aspect of the concept is that it will only fly over the oceans from new, dedicated intermodal airfields near the coasts that connect the fleet with trains and trucks. In flight these giant drones will operate like trains on tracks – flying standard oceanic tracks on given schedules, just like flying trains.

Watch this short video on their commercial trans-oceanic drone concept.  Rather interesting.

Why mention this big commercial aircraft in a GA blog? Well, it is a clear indication of the present direction to the future of GA.

Tell me, in five years if these folks have got this kind of platform functioning, that the success, technology and principles of operation won’t very quickly percolate down to GA design . . . and even operation.  It would be very hard to develop a new aircraft in this environment that didn’t begin to integrate some of these innovations.

This is just the high end of a very rapidly moving trend that will obviously change the role and operation of GA aircraft in the not too distant future.

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.