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.

"Aircraft today have phenomenal autonomous capabilities today," says small-jet manufacturer Vern Raburn, referring to autopilot controls and advanced navigation capabilities. But better materials and propulsion systems will be needed before smart robot birds truly take off.

Raburn, CEO of Eclipse Aviation, a small-jet maker in Albuquerque, N.M., believes that improvements in engine technology will advance aviation tremendously in the immediate future. Smaller, more efficient engines mean less fuel is needed and overall maintenance costs go down.

Raburn says such jet turbine engines are already helping the company build its Eclipse 500, a small six-person jet that has the second-lowest operating cost among similar-sized competitors. And such efficient planes, designed for short, 500 to 600 miles flights, could lead to much cheaper regional "air taxi services."

The vision, says Saffo, is that future air travelers would call a local service with their need — say, a flight from New York City to Rochester, 250 miles upstate. The service figures out a schedule where others in the same area with the same destination can share the relatively short ride. And since the planes are smaller, they'll be able to avoid using congested, major airports.

"It's cheaper to fly from secondary [airports] to secondary," says Saffo who envisions that door-to-door service would cost slightly more than a first-class ticket on the larger airlines. "The rise of the air limo service is just a matter of time. It just makes sense."

And such shifts evolutionary steps in the aviation world are more than ready to take place, believes Raburn, who was an executive for Microsoft and other high-tech companies before entering the aviation field.

"I am optimistic that we're going to see the same phenomena we saw in the 30 years of the PC," he says. "We took stuff that was very big that used to fill whole rooms and now they're tiny boxes moving at warp speed. Taking that phenomena, we're going to be able to change so many aspects of aviation — from design to navigation to automatic flight — with new technology."

Grounded in Reality

But will they ultimately lead to personal flying machines? The jury is still definitely out on that.

For now, only tiny startup companies often led by die-hard visionaries are still pursuing the dream. Many have fallen by the wayside, but some, such as Moller International in Davis, Calif., say they're close. The company's M400 Skycar — a propeller-driven, four-passenger vehicle that takes off and lands vertically like a helicopter but flies at speeds up to 380 miles per hour — could be on the market by 2005.

New materials and engine technologies allow for personal craft such as the M400 technically possible. But before the Skycar can really take off, the Federal Aviation Administration will have to fully develop the smart "skyway" concept where each airborne vehicle is automatically guided through the skies by on-board computers using space-based satellite navigation. And that, say critics, is one tall order.

"The combination of moving at high speeds in three-dimensional space is just too complex," says Saffo. And trusting a robotic pilot — even a super-smart one — would require a major shift in public acceptance. "We're happy to trust robot planes to carry bombs and missiles in war today, but would you put your pet cat in an unmanned vehicle?"

And it would require a major shift in the thinking among those in aviation as well.

"I'm not part of the choir that says we will have the equivalent of the 'volksjet' and a future where everyone's flying around," says Raburn. "As it is, we have enough people driving that shouldn't be driving and I don't think we should put them in the air."