16 Oct 2013

Five New Technologies Changing Air Travel

From the perspective of a passenger, it may seem as if the biggest recent innovations in air travel have been cosmetic. Multi-media consoles on the backs of seats and in-flight Wi-Fi may give you more to do on your flight, but do they really change the overall practice of flying? In reality, there are several new technologies either in use or in development that may be changing how we fly. These technologies are making flight safer, more energy efficient, and more advanced. This article, presented by Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology, looks at five interesting developments in aviation technology.

Drones, or, more properly, “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”, are familiar to most people for their role in the War on Terror. UAVs have been used by the military to conduct surveillance and to carry out targeted strikes. Soon they may be used for live pilots to use as target practice: in September 2013, Boeing successfully flew a retrofitted, retired F-16 as a drone for just this purpose. [i] As UAVs become more controllable, there’s talk of putting them to work on cargo routes, as aerial cartography surveyors[ii] —even as precision crop-dusters or fire-fighting planes.

The high cost of traditional aviation fuel—“Jet-1”, as it’s known in the industry—is frequently cited as a major driver of the high price of airline travel. A new generation of plant-derived “green” fuels could be changing that. These green fuels can be produced all over the world using non-edible crops like camelina (a relative of canola). Algae-derived fuels are also in development, and should be ready to go in the 2020s, according to industry experts. [iii] In addition to keeping down costs, green fuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions and might be safer for ground crews who work around aircraft engines and fumes.

Ionic Wind Thruster Engines
A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is currently working on developing jet engines that need no fuel at all. [iv] Ionic wind thruster engines are powered by the stream of air created when two electrodes are hooked up to an electrical current. Experiments in progress suggest engines using this principle could be put to work in UAVs. From a military standpoint, ionic wind thrust UAVs would be ideal for surveillance, as they are completely silent and do not generate an infrared signature. For military and passenger purposes, the problem of how to create the current without a heavy series of batteries presents a hurdle. But the MIT researchers are confident they will be able to crack it soon.

The “Bird Cannon”
Bird strikes—when large or large numbers of birds get sucked into a jet engine after take-off—are responsible for a surprisingly large number of accidents. Traditionally, tactics for keeping birds away from runways and airfields have not been much more sophisticated than the ones used by farmers to protect their crops. Engine developers are now working on an end-run around the bird problem by developing engines that can handle bigger and bigger bird strikes. The technology helping them do this is a high-speed cannon they use to fire model birds (or even chicken carcasses) into engines during bench tests. [v] It may seem a little wacky, but it’s a potential solution to a major safety issue.

Smarter Planes
The FAA and several manufacturers are investing in new pilot information systems for passenger aircraft. These “Nex-Gen” systems will be capable of delivering real-time data to the pilot. This can include details about aircraft along the flight path, weather systems, or turbulence patches. Sensor systems that will allow pilots to monitor engine performance are also in progress. Additionally, engineers and scientists are at work on so-called “neural network” software for planes. In the case of a systems failure in one part of the aircraft, the software can immediately re-route power or control through working systems to help the pilot safely steer the plane. [vi]