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, et.al. – 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.
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)