Aviation Innovations Take Flight

More than 100 years ago, soaring through the air like a bird might have been an impossible dream.

Now it's so commonplace there are an estimated 612 million commercial flights each year on U.S. airlines alone.

What a difference a century makes.

But for all the innovations since the Wright brothers took to the air on Dec. 17, 1903, there have been numerous low points — especially in the recent years — that have cast a pallor on the once-romantic dream of flying through the air with the greatest of ease.

Last month, supersonic travel came to a halt when both British Airways and Air France retired the Concorde. Service on the world's only faster-than-sound passenger jet stopped because neither airline could operate the plane economically. Rising fuel and maintenance costs had effectively killed the quest for faster commercial travel — for now.

Instead, commercial airlines with an eye toward the bottom line are working on ways to cram even more people on heavily-traveled routes. The latest example: Airbus Industry's A380, a plane that will take to the skies next year with nearly 600 people stuffed aboard its double-decker shape.

For sure, such a radical concept is considered an innovation in modern commercial aviation. But while the industry focuses on such "super-jumbo" jets, it also underscores the disappointing lack of innovation at the other end of the aviation spectrum: the so-called personal flying vehicle, a dream of science fiction that has never become reality.

With personal aircraft likely to remain a dream of science fiction for the time being, some experts believe the biggest advances in aviation over the next century will come in a sector that is just the opposite: unmanned flight.

Rise of the Machines?

"In the last 100 years, it was all about planes with people in them," says Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, a think tank in Menlo Park, Calif. "In the next 100 years, aviation will be about [the planes] where there are no people in them at all."

Saffo says the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan marked a big step in military aviation. And further development of smarter robot planes will have huge impact for both large commercial applications as well as the private sector.

Using computers and software, so-called "eternal planes" will be able to autonomously fly at 80,000 feet without concern for the comforts of a human pilot. At such heights, the robot planes can function as ersatz communication "satellite" beaming radio, TV and Internet signals to a huge area of land below.

But civilian UAVs will also be able to provide additional capabilities to law enforcement.

"Today, a police department has to spend millions of dollars to get and keep a helicopter patrol," says Saffo. "But with a robotic helicopter, there's much less cost because you don't have to keep a human pilot proficient in how to fly."

And, flying robotic surveillance units will also be a boon for news organizations.

"[The Iraq war] will be the last war where only the military flies UAVs," hypothesizes Saffo. "In the near future, it's possible you'll see ones with 'CNN' on the side covering some war or other major event."

Engines of Change

But Saffo and others note that the fast pace of robotic flight is helping to push developments in other important fields in flight as well.

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