Archive for the ‘John Petersen’ Category

The next revolution in general aviation

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Just about exactly 103 years ago, Nikola Tesla said: “I am now planning aerial machines devoid of sustaining planes, ailerons, propellers, and other external attachments, which will be capable of immense speeds”. Tesla ran out of money and wasn’t able to produce his craft but it now appears that maybe, just maybe, that his airplane– certainly by other means – may be on the not too distant horizon.

And the first terrestrial application will probably be a general aviation aircraft – at least, that is what the inventor of a radical new engine is saying.

Now this is a long shot – but that’s what thinking about the future involves. And everyone doesn’t agree about it. That too is integral to thinking about potential breakthroughs. But if this one works – and NASA has duplicated the basic concept – then we could be seeing the early indicators of the emergence of a new world

This one is different (like I said) because the EmDrive doesn’t use any traditional fuel. It generates thrust by the reaction of electromagnetic fields in a shaped cavity. You’ve got to generate electricity, for sure, but after that there are no moving parts. The electricity is converted directly into thrust.

Under the headline NASA’s impossible warp EmDrive proves possible: accelerates beams faster than light in a void, said: “Last summer, NASA made international headlines after finally testing British scientist Roger Shawyer’s ludicrous EmDrive, otherwise known as “the impossible engine,” and determining that the engine produced a minute level of thrust without any propellant. This is major, because it goes against the very laws of physics as defined by Newton’s third law, that is, that every action has an opposite and equal reaction; hence the nickname “the impossible engine.”  “Nearly eight months later, Paul March, an engineer at NASA Eagleworks, reported in a thread on (a website devoted to the engineering side of space exploration) that NASA has successfully tested the EmDrive in a vacuum and demonstrated that laser beams fired through the EmDrive’s resonance chamber exhibited fluctuations in velocity, with some beams appearing to surpass the speed of light.”

Now that should get you to the stars . . . or at least Mars. Shawyer thinks Mars is just a couple day flight with his engines.

NASA EmDrive test device

NASA EmDrive test device. Photo courtesy of SPR Ltd.

NASA EmDrive test device. Photo courtesy of SPR Ltd.

Shawyer says the first terrestrial applications will probably be for general aviation vehicles. The EmDrive website elaborates:

“The ultimate spin-off from space technology will occur when second generation lift engines are employed in terrestrial transport applications. Typically 3 tonnes of lift could be obtained from 1kW of microwave power. Liquid hydrogen would be used for cooling the lift engine and for powering the auxiliary engines. Thus the essential low cost, non-polluting components for large scale utilization are readily achievable. A future low energy transport infrastructure, no longer dependent on wings and wheels would now seem possible.”

Did you follow that? They say 6,000 pounds of lift could be generated by about the equivalent of 1.4 horsepower of generation power. That would change things.

Here’s an interesting interview with the inventor. Click on the picture below to watch it.

So you’ve got great new engines – now, what does the rest of the craft look like?

In the last couple of months a new breakthrough in the design of structures has been announced that has direct applications to future airframe construction. As in the case of the EmDrive, this invention is showing up in another sector – this time automobiles – but you don’t have to be a futurist to see that it could certainly be coming our way.

Here’s the picture that tells the story.


Divergent Microfactories presents the Blade in what the company says is the "world's first 3D printed super car" in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Divergent Microfactories presents the Blade in what the company says is the “world’s first 3D printed super car” in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.


This handsome beast comes from Divergent Microfactories and is interesting by itself (700 HP // 0-60 IN 2.2 SEC // 1,400 LBS).

But the way that they have designed and built this car points directly toward the GA market – starting particularly with experimental airframes. They’ve designed a chassis that is 1/10th the weight of that in a conventionally made car and costs about 10% of a steel one.

Here’s a shot from their website that shows the 3D printed aluminum “nodes” that, coupled with carbon fiber tubes makes a frame (in about 30 minutes), that is stronger than steel ones.

Divergent Microfactories presents a frame member for the Blade in what the company says is the "world's first 3D printed super car" in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Divergent Microfactories presents a frame member for the Blade in what the company says is the “world’s first 3D printed super car” in this handout photo courtesy of Divergent Microfactories.

Take a look at this video. The whole chassis is in that bag!

Divergent Microfactories Blade DEBUTS #SOLIDCON 6/24/15 from Divergent Microfactories on Vimeo.

So, one way or another we’re on our way to a revolution . . . and it may be sooner than we think.

If you like this kind of stuff, you might find the talk that I’ll be giving on the future of aviation at NBAA this fall of interest. Come by and say hi if you’re there.

Converging Technologies Promise Really Different Planes

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

If you think aircraft in the future will look like and operate like those we now find familiar, let me try to dissuade you of that.

There are technologies converging that are clearly going to change the essentials of the flying process and experience. Consider these.

Additive manufacturing

The FAA has now cleared the first 3D printed part to fly in a commercial jet engine. GE Aviation, which is making the fuel nozzle for a new generation of jet engine. They say that the 3D-printed nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model. 3D printing allowed engineers to use a simpler design that reduced the number of brazes and welds from 25 to just five.

They have also run a 3D printed micro jet turbine up to 33,000 rpm, marking the first known test of a jet engine built using additive manufacturing.
The CMC parts help with weight and heat management. They are two-thirds lighter than the metal equivalent and can operate at temperatures 20 percent higher than their metallic counterpart, at levels where most alloys grow soft.

Image courtesy of GE Reports.

Image courtesy of GE Reports.

GE claims that it will be manufacturing 100,000 additive parts by 2020 (five years from now). Already they have over three hundred 3D printing machines currently in use throughout the company.

Do you think that that capability will find its way into GA? Of course it will.

Advanced cabin displays

Would you like a biz jet without windows? Something like this?

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

You might if the inside looked like this:

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

Image courtesy of Technicon Design

Technicon Design’s Paris office designed the jet to display to 360-degree views that are simulated on internal screens from external cameras that capture the surrounding environment in real time, according to the Daily Mail.

Fox News said the images displayed in the interior cabin—including the walls and even the ceiling—give passengers the feeling of flying through the air in an invisible vessel.

You will be able to project anything on these screens . . . when you get tired of the view outside!

Electric twin

The Airbus Group’s electric E-Fan experimental aircraft made its first public test flight at E-Aircraft Day in Bordeaux, France recently. The electric E-Fan training aircraft is an innovative technology experimental demonstrator based on an all-composite construction.

Airbus plans to certify the next version of its electric E-Fan as a two-place trainer, to be followed by a four-seater. Airbus Group photo.

Airbus plans to certify the next version of its electric E-Fan as a two-place trainer, to be followed by a four-seater. Airbus Group photo.

Their website says Airbus Group plans to further develop the E-Fan technology demonstrator and to produce and market two versions of the aircraft by a subsidiary named VoltAir. The two-seater version E-Fan 2.0 will be a fully electric training aircraft powered only by batteries. The four-seat version E-Fan 4.0 will be a training and general aviation aircraft which will also have a combustion engine within the fuselage to provide an extended range or endurance.

Airbus sees this as the early experience in design and industrialization of an “E-Thrust” hybrid electric regional aircraft in about the 2050 timeframe.

But those are just little “experimental” engines, you say. Well, how about this:

Big, light electric motors

Powerful Ultralight Motor for Electrically Powered Aircraft. Photo credit:

Powerful Ultralight Motor for Electrically Powered Aircraft. Photo credit:

Gizmag reports that “researchers at Siemens have created a new prototype electric motor specifically designed for aircraft that weighs in at just 50 kg (110 lb) and is claimed to produce about 260 kW (348 hp) at just 2,500 RPM. With a quoted power five times greater than any comparable powerplant, the new motor promises enough grunt to get aircraft with take-off weights of up to 1,800 kg (2 ton) off the ground.”

Siemens says that new simulation techniques and sophisticated lightweight construction have enabled the drive system to achieve a unique weight-to-performance ratio of five kilowatts (kW) per kilogram (kg). Comparable electric motors that are used in industrial applications deliver less than one kW per kg. The performance of the drive systems used in electric vehicles is about two kW per kg. Since the new motor delivers its record-setting performance at rotational speeds of just 2,500 revolutions per minute, it can drive propellers directly, without the use of a transmission.

So think about that a minute. How much does your Cessna weigh? (Certainly less than 4,000 pounds I’d guess.) And how many hundreds of pounds does your engine weigh? (The engine in my airplane that generated 350hp was over 800 pounds!)

This little motor will really drive your plane through the air.

Flexible geometry control surfaces

But wait! Even conventional control surfaces are going away.

NASA is doing away with ailerons and flaps! They and the Air Force Research Laboratory and FlexSys are making wings that smoothly change their shape between a range of -2 to 30 degrees to generate the directional inputs for flight. Watch the video here.

NASA photo

NASA photo

These new variable geometry control surfaces increase efficiency and decrease noise. Right now the process is mechanical, but ultimately, material science has already developed the basic materials that change their configuration based only upon electrical signals to material.

These advances are just the beginning—the leading edge—of far more breakthroughs that will dramatically change what it means to both be a pilot and to fly.

Flying Cars

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

I’m a professional futurist and perhaps the most common question that I’ve received on radio interviews and after speeches is, “So where’s the flying cars? You futurists have been predicting that forever.”

First of all, that’s not true. There have been some science fiction folks, of course, that always had some variation of a car that flies, but I don’t know of any real futurist that “predicted” that we’d have flying cars at any particular time.

That said . . . they’re coming!

You can’t look across the breakthroughs that are happening in a variety of technological areas and at the same time notice the new crop of flying/driving machines that are soon to be sold and on the drawing boards, and not believe that something’s going on.  Change is in the wind and, like drones, there will be far more flying cars in the not very distant future.

I’ve covered a rather sexy planned flying car here in the past but thought you might like to see a couple that could be closer in.


Terrafugia, of course, is the biggest kid on the block, sporting a bunch of MIT graduates who have had a flying model of their initial Transition car/plane for about two years.  You can make a down payment, with delivery anticipated to be sometime soon.

Their ultimate objective is the TF-X, shown below. They had a mockup of this car/plane at Oshkosh this summer.  It’s a vertical takeoff and landing machine that is really quite extraordinary.

Here’s where you can see an animation of this rather cool vehicle.

Terrafugia TFx. Image courtesy of Terrafugia.

Terrafugia TFx. Image courtesy of Terrafugia.


From Slovakia comes the AeroMobil 3.0, one of the most futuristic looking entries in the flying car field.  It flies at 125 mph or more for 430 miles and can max out at over 100 mph on the ground and cover distances exceeding 500 miles.  The AeroMobil 3.0 is undergoing flight testing now (you can see a great video here).

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

AeroMobil 3.0. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

A pretty cockpit for two. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

A pretty cockpit for two. Photo courtesy of AeroMobil.

It’s all on your head

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Photo used with permission from DAQRI.

I read about a new product recently that clearly could dramatically change the pilot experience in the future. DAQRI LLC, with offices in Los Angles and the Bay Area, has developed an augmented reality helmet for industrial applications that could also revolutionize the communication and display of information in the cockpit.

Billed as the world’s first wearable human machine interface, it has been designed initially for machinery-rich environments where a great deal of information is needed (and potentially available) about the surroundings . . . wherever one is.

This helmet is loaded with electronics – GPS, inertial system, Wi-Fi, displays – and is able to download everything that is available (from databases anywhere), that is applicable to the current situation. It is probably the most advanced commercial, augmented reality product around.

DAQRI says that the “Smart Helmet bridges the gap between potential and experience, enhancing human abilities in industry by seamlessly connecting the human being to the work environment and providing relevant information instantaneously.”

They suggest, that “For the first time, a world class sensor package has been fused with an intuitive user experience, driven by native augmented reality software and DAQRI’s Intellitrack™ system for the most precise display and tracking possible, and providing users with unprecedented levels of information about the world around them.”

Does that sound like it could be adapted to piloting an aircraft one of these days? It certainly does to me.

Photo used with permission from DAQRI.

Photo used with permission from DAQRI.

The military, of course, has had very high tech headgear for advanced fighters for some time now . . . at a cost of about $3 million a copy (or something like that). But now that kind of technology is working its way down into the commercial marketplace, and is going to end up being a whole lot cheaper (Moore’s Law, you know).

The DAQRI helmet is a modified hard hat for use in industrial conditions, but try to think of it – with its two different pull-down screens connected to a high-resolution 3-D depth camera, and 360° navigation cameras, which support HD video recording, photography, 3-D mapping, and alphanumeric capture, and allow the Smart Helmet to read and understand signage and instrument data – in a light weight version modified for the cockpit.

Here, watch this video that explains its design and operation . . . and then tell me whether you think it has aviation written all over it. I do.

The future is coming fast!

Flying Trains on Tracks

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

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.

Get Excited!

Wednesday, June 25th, 2014
Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

So, OK – how do you feel now?

Try this:

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Feel better?

Want a little more?

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

How about this: electric/jet, 120 miles, 100 mph, 2500 ft., 550 kts, 38,000 ft., 700-1000 miles @ max gross?

Can you take one more?

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Image courtesy of Greg Brown.

Wait! You’re overheating. You need to cool down. Take this: 4 years, $3-5 million. Hooked? Here’s more.

Editor’s note: AOPA reached out to Greg Brown, one of the men behind the project, who offered some exclusive information about the craft’s expected performance and comfort: “Compared to a traditional business jet, the GF7 will fly as fast in the air with all the comforts and luxury of a high end sedan, and then save between 10 – 20 minutes interfacing with the airport for each leg, as well as reduce the need to coordinate with multiple entities at each destination. For a business jet to save 10 minutes on a 300 mile leg it would have to cruise faster than the speed of sound. Depending on the state, half to a third of public airports do not offer ground transportation. But, with the GF7 operators can drive off any airfield in a vehicle with high end comfort and road performance rivaling many cars. The GF7 advantage is convenience, speed, and flexibility.”

Fly By Mind

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

In previous posts here I’ve suggested that one of the big problems with the future of flying is that it is too hard to learn how to fly an airplane.  Pilots today are manually controlling the same elevator-aileron-rudder combination like Lindbergh did when he was flying in the early 1920s, and mastering the control of three dimensions is not intuitive. Getting the mind and body to work in the right way to keep from crashing takes a lot of work and money and presents a significant barrier to entry to aspiring aviators.

FlyByMind1The solution to this problem is obvious.  Make all new airplanes fly-by-wire and drive the controls with a computer . . . which can be programmed to convert any new and easier pilot input scheme into appropriate control surface outputs.  The inputs could be almost anything – including, it is now clear, your mind.

In late May researchers from Technische Universität München in Germany described the emergence of a new paradigm. In part they said:

The pilot is wearing a white cap with myriad attached cables. His gaze is concentrated on the runway ahead of him. All of a sudden the control stick starts to move, as if by magic. The airplane banks and then approaches straight on towards the runway. The position of the plane is corrected time and again until the landing gear gently touches down. During the entire maneuver the pilot touches neither pedals nor controls.

FlyByMind2This is not a scene from a science fiction movie, but rather the rendition of a test at the Institute for Flight System Dynamics of the Technische Universität München (TUM). Scientists working for Professor Florian Holzapfel are researching ways in which brain controlled flight might work in the EU-funded project “Brainflight”.

I’ve tried to make it clear that we are on the verge of an unprecedented revolution in aviation, driven and supported by information technology.  We’re talking things much more than glass panels and things like that that, which although new, would look familiar.  This revolution is being described by the convergence of a number of breakthroughs, some of which (like mind control of the aircraft), seem very foreign how we think of flying and airplanes.

Many big breakthroughs in display and computer interface technologies get their start in the gaming and entertainment sectors.  Here demands for lifelike, high resolution presentations (think of the 3D film Avatar), compete with compellingly immersive virtual reality goggles and new, more intuitive input-output device.  Early computer thought control approaches showed up first in the gaming space. Now it is spreading to aviation.

FlyByMind3The gaming (and now Facebook) world has also produced another breakthrough product that is certain to change how we fly . . . and everything else.  The cover of the present issue of WIRED characterizes it thus:

This kid (21-year-old inventor Palmer Luckey), is about to change gaming, movies, TV, music, design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education – and reality.  The Oculus Rift is here, and it will blow your mind.

Oculus is talking about a set of virtual reality goggles that: “. . . creates a stereoscopic 3D view with excellent depth, scale, and parallax. Unlike 3D on a television or in a movie, this is achieved by presenting unique and parallel images for each eye. This is the same way your eyes perceive images in the real world, creating a much more natural and comfortable experience.”

The WIRED article explains why Facebook paid $2 billion for this little start-up with two dozen employees a couple of months ago and why it represents a paradigm shift that will obviously change the whole idea of IFR flying.  Just think of putting on your Oculus Rift and making all of the weather disappear.  Drop it over your eyes and there’s a new augmented reality world that has every bit of information available from every database you select superimposed in front of your field of view.

Couple that with only needing to “think” about what you want to do and where you want to go and you’ve clearly got a new world out there.

The end of ice?

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

I don’t know about you, but for me, the rapid buildup of ice on an airplane in flight (next to an engine failure, I suppose), is one of the most attention-getting events in aviation. Like the upcoming ground seen from behind a very slowly turning (and silent) prop blade, the more the ice builds up, the more the mind congers up an invisible brick wall, rapidly getting closer and closer.

A lot of effort over the years has gone into trying to get rid of ice sticking on airplane parts. Early approaches were mechanical, with pneumatically activated leading edge boots, then came weeping wings, heated surfaces and electrostatic systems—all designed to break the bond between the ice and the structural material.

One of the things I mention in the talks that I give around the country about the future of aviation is the extraordinary science and technology breakthroughs that are piling on top of each other to produce the accelerating, exponential change that will reconfigure all aspects of our lives. Out of the innumerable examples of gobsmacking (as the Brits put it) inventions that contribute to this unprecedented shift are a couple new products that point to the possible elimination of the issue of ice in aviation.

LiquiGlideThe first is LiquiGlide, designed by a MIT PhD candidate (he quit school to run the company), which makes surfaces so slick that liquids don’t stick to them. Check out the video on the right. The company suggests that ice on aircraft wings behave the same way as liquid water and therefore will not stick. The presumption is, as I understand it, that the rain is liquid until it hits the surface and then freezes. LiquiGlide advertises aviation anti-icing as one of their industrial applications so it’s likely that commercial applications will be out in the not too distant future.

You can’t get samples of LiquiGlide to try on your airplane, but there’s NeverWet, another hydrophobic coating that advertises anti-icing characteristics that you can try. The video on the left shows a test of coated and uncoated electrical insulators in a freezing rain situation. NeverWet has teamed up with Rust-Oleum to produce a two-part spray product that can be bought at major home improvement stores.

I mention this because AOPA Pilot’s Dave Hirschman told me back in January that he had sprayed this stuff on one wing of his airplane, drove it into an icing environment and watched with pleasure when the uncoated wing acquired ice and the coated one didn’t. Not a scientific study, but it showed that the basic claims appear to be true. Both companies say that their coatings are very durable and only if it is scratched is the underlying surface vulnerable to ice. Interesting stuff.

If you happen to be in the Phoenix area and would like to hear a very wide-ranging review of new things that will revolutionize flying, I’m giving a keynote presentation in the near future in Phoenix opening the Aviation Insurance Association annual meeting on May 5. If you’re there, come by and say hi.

Why Pilots and Planes Will Become Obsolete In The Near Future . . . And What We Can Do About It (Part 2)

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Within the context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA. In addition to technological changes, which we covered last month here, the following weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.

The economics of GA are rapidly shifting – toward China. Many well-known brands (Cirrus, Glastar, Continental et. al.) are already owned by Chinese companies and almost every jet manufacturer is doing some kind of joint venture with Chinese manufacturers and sales organizations. Many of these companies are owned by the government of China and as they gather the knowledge and intellectual property associated with building and selling GA aircraft the manufacturing will move away from the more expensive U.S. base and the ability of American companies to compete will rapidly decrease. The present industry is moving offshore.

The unprecedented initiatives by the U.S. government to counter “terrorism” in the last decade are cutting off the natural ways in which young people historically became interested in and familiar with aviation. The fences around almost all airports guarantee that no youngsters can sit on the grass watching touch-and-goes or wander or into a hangar and strike up a relationship with an airplane owner. This is effectively cutting off one of the largest historical sources of pilots and eliminating the possible budding interest in aviation that the present community has been based upon.

At the same time, social culture is changing and flying an airplane is not as interesting and exciting as it was to earlier generations. Time magazine, for example, has claimed that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have replaced the car culture of the past, allowing teens to connect with each other without needing a car. The same could be said for the perceived value of an aircraft.

There are a number of other contributing forces, but you get the idea. Big change is in the works that is going to reconfigure how airplanes work and the relationship of pilots to them. It is inevitable.

What to do
We’re essentially behind the power curve. Increased efforts to revive the familiar past will necessarily fail as the embedded driving forces inexorably reconfigure both the rules and playing field. What we must do is innovate our way into a new era that allows American companies to invent the next variant of personal air transportation. We must redefine what airplanes and pilots are. This is the only solution – invent a new future.

As it happens, the pieces are available to begin to do that. Predictably the solution revolves around some of the key aspects of the present system: image of flying, cost of entry (expense and effort associated with training), cost of aircraft, interface with the government, etc.

If GA is not to become a bunch of old guys flying old airplanes then we must reposition general aviation in such a way that it appeals to younger generations. Here is a plan.

  • Begin by building a coherent vision for the next era. Take a systematic look at the trends in place, both positive and negative, and then build an integrated and plausible picture of what we would prefer a new future to look like. The vision would particularly include a considered notion of how general aviation could augment the lives of young people in a new way that was consistent with the current trends that inform their lives. This will take time and concerted effort.
  • Identify what needs to happen to enable the new vision to emerge. Include issues related to: appeal and perceived value, barriers to entry, cost of operation, new technologies, interface with the US government, ability to change, etc.
  • Develop a new positioning for U.S. general aviation. Work with appropriate professionals to discover the best, next image for GA – something that particularly appeals to the market of prospective pilots/owners.
  • Generate buy-in by the present U.S. aviation community. Sell the new approach to the major stakeholders within the GA community. Develop high level buy-in.
  • Cluster resources around required key capabilities or issues that must be addressed. Constitute interest groups around necessary areas of effort. Work with funding sources like NASA to funnel development resources to high impact and leverage areas.
  • Find and encourage incentives. Work with government agencies to develop incentives focused on solutions for key capabilities or issues.
  • Generate early successes. Emphasize areas of effort that will produce rapid, positive results.
  • Undertake a campaign to reposition GA in the minds of new prospects. Develop a major communications campaign aimed at changing the minds of target Americans about the value, accessibility and benefit of GA.

Make no mistake about it, this is a big deal. It is nothing less than an industry/ community-wide effort to remake general aviation, both internally and in the minds of Americans. It would cost a lot of time and money but it would be worth it.

This is about redirecting the future into a direction that is different from where it is now headed. It’s possible to do, in fact, many large corporations and industries have reinvented themselves in the past. So, now is the time for GA to invent its next life. The longer we wait, the harder, more expensive and less likely it will become.

Why Pilots and Planes Will Become Obsolete In The Near Future . . . And What We Can Do About It (Part 1)

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

It is not at all farfetched to believe that the pilots and planes that we all know and love are, well, on their way out – that we are at the end of an historical era.  The indicators are all there, both in terms of what we know about the past and by observing the current trends that surround us.

History tells us that everything changes.  So it is inevitable that the present paradigm will give way to something new.  The only question is when and how.  To understand this, we must begin by describing the larger environment in which we find ourselves – providing a context for understanding the other forces that are in play.  As it happens, the context is unprecedented and extraordinary.

We are living in within the highest rate of change in the history of humanity.  Never before has our species (or any species, for that matter) experienced the converging exponential forces that are presently catapulting us toward the horizon. No matter which dimension you choose – technology, social values, agriculture, science, energy, climate, government, – we are confronted with situations that would largely have been considered implausible as late as five years ago.

Enabled by the global neural system we call the Internet, the increasing interaction within support systems (and our values and perspectives) are rather amazing. Changes in one area ricochet across many others, generating cascading shifts that follow each other with shorter and shorter intervals.   The metabolism of the whole human experience is amplified by the feeding of trends and events on each other, producing larger and larger impacts.

It’s within this context of rapidly accelerating breakthroughs (and the erosion of the legacy systems) that a number of trends have established themselves that will have direct impact on the future of GA.  These weak signals or early indicators are harbingers of what are sure to become larger, converging forces that will usher in a new era in aviation.


The combination of ubiquitous connectivity, increasing bandwidth, advanced sensors and decreasing cost is assuring that Autonomous Systems (aka drones and unmanned aerial vehicles) will become an increasing larger segment of the global aircraft fleet. The Navy has flown its first drone from an aircraft carrier, the Air Force is having a hard time hiring the number of drone pilots that it needs, and the Marine Corps is already using a drone cargo helicopter in Afghanistan.  Large drone cargo aircraft are already being designed and UAVs are very rapidly proliferating throughout the law enforcement, news gathering and research communities.  The FAA has certified the first commercial drone and forecasts that 10,000 of them will be in the air over the US by 2020.

Cargo Drone envisioned by Dorsal Aircraft Corp.

Cargo Drone envisioned by Dorsal Aircraft Corp.

Artificial Intelligence is on the horizon. Strong AI agents will act like humans – they will research, collect information (from sensors and other sources), interact with other agents and humans and make decisions.  Think of them as a pilot that knows what the weather is, is constantly aware of the state of the airframe, powerplants, communicates with ATC, filed the flight plan, and flies the aircraft. Advanced Voice Recognition will allow the AI to interact directly with humans. Augmented Reality already has the capability to superimpose information from databases located anywhere on the planet onto the synthetic image generated by the AI controller/pilot.  Advanced Materials are also being developed that will have thousands or millions of miniscule computers embedded within them that will signal the state of any aircraft component (temperature, pressure, etc.) on a real time basis to the AI pilot.   It’s not certain when this capability will become commercially available but I’d guess we’ll begin to see applications within a decade. In any case, they are certainly coming.

The integration of these capabilities (and others) present the rather real possibility of getting into an aircraft in the not too distant future, telling the techno cab driver-controller where you want to go and sitting back while it determines the ideal route and then takes you there.  If this seems farfetched, keep in mind that technological advances are more than doubling every 18 months so application in 2020 won’t be just five or ten times better than today but will be over 500 times more capable. Ponder that for a minute.

This kind of explosive development also raises the distinct possibility of the emergence of things like levitation into the civil fleet in the not too distant future.  There are a number of private efforts underway to develop this capability and an application of the technology has been reported in the major aviation press to already be an integral part of the wing design of the B-2 bomber.  In any case, levitation would obviously produce an aircraft that didn’t look like or operate like those we see at our local airport.

(To be continued next month)