Our aviation forecasts have just received clear agreement from some respected specialists. We are pretty chuffed about it.
New Tech Is Changing Aerospace
New Tech Is Changing Aerospace
By the TechCast Staff
In preparing to cover this year’s Farnborough Airshow, which begins July 16, the well-respected Aviation Week & Space Technology searched out 10 new technologies that will transform aerospace. We don’t know how long it took them, but we are fairly sure TechCast subscribers could have found nearly all their information faster by reading our Technology Forecasts. Please forgive us a little self-congratulation. It’s not often futurists get such clear evidence they are doing a good job without waiting years for their predictions to come true.
Here are the technologies in question. Most are covered in our TF on Next Gen Aircraft. Other forecasts are noted below as appropriate.
Now that 3D printers can work with high-strength metals, Boeing, Airbus, and some of their suppliers are turning out structural components, engine parts, and other critical hardware from titanium as good or better than forged items, but lighter. In its 1240-shp Advanced Turboprop, GE replaced 855 separate parts with just 12 made by 3D printing. Next step: Build printers capable of turning out objects bigger than the 70 inches or so that’s the current limit for the printer Airbus recently installed in one of its factories. See our TF on 3D Printing for more information.
Cheap Space Launchers
Flying the Space Shuttle cost about $450 million per launch, or $8000 per pound of payload. By the end of 2018, at least three companies—Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, and Vector—should have flown rockets capable of lofting small payloads at costs as low as $5 million per launch. That’s actually more expensive per pound, but the total buy-in for a trip to orbit more than makes up for it. And for big payloads, the Falcon Heavy from SpaceX is expected to cost less than $1000 per pound to low Earth Orbit. The 2020s will be the decade when space industry really takes off.
Most electrically-powered aircraft today suffer from limited ranges and terrible power-to-weight ratios compared with gas engines. This is changing rapidly. A few years from now, better batteries, fuel cells, and hybrid power trains will make them practical for aircraft from urban air taxis to regional airliners. In the longer term, their batteries are likely to be charged by wind or solar energy. AvWeek deals with electrification and the transition to alternative energy for aircraft as two separate trends. We view them as two aspects of one underlying change, the move from fossil-fueled aircraft to cleaner, more efficient models. Subscribers can see our Energy Storage and Next Gen Aircraft forecasts for more information.
The US, which once led in development of aircraft capable of speeds above five times the speed of sound. Now it is playing catch-up to Russia and China, which have announced development of hypersonic missiles. Unlike some military technologies, this has clear civilian uses. A hypersonic airliner proposed by Boeing could cross the Atlantic in two hours or the Pacific in three. A demonstrator could fly in the mid-2020s, but commercial service will take at least a decade longer to appear.
Score this one a miss for us. We rarely cover military technologies unless they have civilian applications as well. Directed-energy weapons really don’t. But as a defense against drones and, in larger models, rockets, cruise missiles, and eventually ICBMs, they soon will be far more effective than anything available today. They will even cost less per target destroyed.
Long Distance Drones
Drones are useful mostly because they can cover distances quickly and much cheaper than manned aircraft. Think of delivering packages or surveying power lines. Yet, FAA regulations treat them like big model airplanes, banning flights farther than the operator can see. That rule will go away in the next few years as pilot (so to speak) projects in the US, Europe, and other lands develop tech and regs to make them safe in crowded cities and national airspace. We expect drone-enabled business to soar the moment it does.
Robots used in aircraft manufacturing today are like those in any other factory, fixed tools capable of performing a single task well 24/7. In the near future, they will work more flexibly with human partners and even move around the factory floor to machine aircraft parts that are too big for a traditional assembly line. The result: faster, cheaper construction while achieving greater precision. See our Smart Robots TF for more.
Artificial intelligence seems set to revolutionize almost every field one can think of. Aviation is no exception. Applications range from collecting research data on board airplanes rather than on the ground to monitoring aircraft condition to anticipate component failures when they can still be prevented to smart pilot aides. By the 2030s, they are likely to replace pilots entirely, even on passenger airlines.
Automatic Dependent Surveillance—Broadcast (ADSB) is part of the FAA’s NextGen air traffic control system, designed to allow aircraft to fly directly to their destination, rather than being limited to fixed airways as they have been. Unfortunately, it works line-of-sight, so planes can’t use it when far out over the ocean or over the poles. Two companies—Aireon and Aerial & Maritime—plan to fill the gaps by tracking aircraft with satellites. Air travel will be faster and cheaper as a result. Planes will even emit less greenhouse gases.
In all, we are pretty happy with this result: nine trends out of ten appear in our Technology Forecasts, and the omission of laser weapons is by policy, rather than oversight.
We expect aerospace to be one of the fastest changing, highest value areas of technology for at least the next 15 years. Most of the slower-moving technologies, such as electric aircraft, are being retarded by regulation or cost, rather than R&D. The one obvious exception is hypersonic aircraft, and even they are not far beyond the horizon. When the next breakthrough happens, TechCast subscribers can expect to find exactly what they need to know in our Technical Forecasts.
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