6 Ways Technology Is Changing Aviation

How Technology Is Changing Aviation for the Better

Quadcopter, drone, UAS
Image: Getty Images News

Aviation enthusiasts argue over what might have been the Golden Age of aviation. Was it the birth years when the Wright Brothers glided over the sands of Kitty Hawk? Was it the teenage years when daredevil pilots barnstormed through the farm towns of the American heartland in tube and fabric contraptions, offering rides to country folk who had never seen an airplane before? Was it the robust industrial age of World War II when the forges and factories of America rolled hundreds of airplanes off their assembly lines every day?

Was it the postwar era when Piper and Cessna aimed to put an airplane in every garage and the family car was going to be an airplane?  

Or is it today when drones are filling the skies, 3D printing has made manufacturing parts quicker and more economical, NASA is going to deep space, and small business entrepreneurs are succeeding at commercial spaceflight development? 

1. Drones

The first known pilotless aircraft were balloons that carried bombs from Austria to attack Venice. The bombs were wired with fuses that could be detonated with a timer. The theory was solid, but the execution wasn’t all that successful.

It  wasn’t long after this that cameras were mounted to multiple unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance purposes: kites, balloons, aircraft and other flying objects. As radio technology advanced, so did unmanned aerial vehicles. By World War II, unmanned aircraft were used as flying bombs and for target practice, catapulted into the air and controlled by radio.

 

Drone technology advanced further during the Cold War and Vietnam, and the CIA funded multiple unmanned flight projects. Then the introduction of the Predator drone in the 1980s changed the face of warfare. The Predator could stay in the air for 56 hours.

The U.S. Air Force created its first official UAV squadron in 1995.

The Predator was used not only to find high-value terrorist targets like Osama Bin Laden, but also to take them out. It was eventually outfitted with missiles and tasked to carry out airstrikes during the war on terror that ensued after 9/11.  

Today, drone technology has moved into the civilian sector. Smaller drones are used for everything from law enforcement to package delivery. Unmanned aerial systems are still heavily used in the military, but commercial demand is growing rapidly and it’s changing the face of aviation. In response, the FAA has been called upon to create new drone rules, including a law that requires registration of any drone up to 55 pounds. The FAA also finalized a new Small UAS Rule Part 107 in 2016, requiring that remote pilot operators hold remote pilot operator certificates, or at least a private pilot certificate.

2. 3D Printing 

Advancements in the 3D printing craze happened quickly. Many wrote it off as something that wouldn't take form when 3D printing was first introduced – something that would be a trend and wouldn't last. Then GE Aviation began building aircraft engines with 3D printers and everyone's ears perked up.

GE Aviation made 2016 the year of 3D jet engine parts.

The aerospace division of General Electric has a long history of creating amazing jet engines, and the company now says that its new CFM LEAP engines will have 3D-printed fuel nozzles, a simpler design that is five times more durable and much lighter than traditional parts. GE also received approval for a 3D-printed housing for a compressor inlet temperature sensor for Boeing 777 engines in 2015. 

GE isn’t the only company jumping on board the 3D printing bandwagon. According to one report, Boeing has already printed and installed over 20,000 parts on airplanes, including the F/A-18 Superhornet. Airbus presented the world’s first-ever 3D-printed miniature airplane called THOR (Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality) in June 2016. The aircraft was created to show what’s possible with 3D printing and to demonstrate its benefits: less manufacturing waste, lighter, more durable parts, and fewer tools.

Textron has teamed up with GE Aviation to install a new 3D-printed GE engine on the new Cessna Denali airplane, a small turboprop set to fly in 2018. It will benefit from design features normally set aside for jet engines. GE Aviation says that 3D printing will allow them to consolidate the complex engine-building process that normally includes hundreds of parts to just a few simple pieces. This engine will be lighter, according to Textron, and will burn 20 percent less fuel and offer a 10 percent increase in power.

3. Flying Cars

We’ve always said we want flying cars, and now they’re here. While they might not be the best of either world, they may very well be the best of both. Flying cars make not-so-great cars and not-so-great airplanes, but hey, it’s a flying car.

As technology improves to make flying cars like the Terrafugia Transition or the PAL-V possible, regulations only get more complicated. It seems as though the flying car designs are always stuck in regulation la-la land. Still, there are designers out there who are trying to make flying cars work, and our dreams of flying to work every morning like the Jetson family might actually come true one of these days. 

Terrafugia is still working on its Transition, the company’s first generation of the flying car, which may or may not receive final approval. In the meantime, they’re diverting their attention to their next design, the TF-X, a hybrid electric car capable of vertical takeoff that the company believes will change the way we fly – and drive. And Google co-founder Larry Page is off on a super-secret mission to develop a flying car of sorts. Rumor has it that he’s already invested more than $100 million in a flying car startup company.

4. Commercial Space Flight

We all want to see the flying car succeed, but then again, you might want to skip the flying car stage of life and go straight to outer space. Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are making human commercial spaceflight possible. With the latest advances in technology coupled with privately-funded startups, commercial flights to space are just over the horizon.

Efforts by NASA to focus on deep space exploration mean that the market is opening up for civilian companies to explore human flight to low-earth orbit. A multitude of companies new and old have begun design and testing for commercial spaceflight operations along with industry partners. It’s an important time for commercial space travel, and it will be very interesting to witness the transition of space exploration from government-led missions to corporate civilian missions.

5. Unleaded Avgas 

It’s time to get rid of lead. General aviation is the largest contributor of lead contamination in the U.S., and it’s time to transition to a better fuel. Avgas – 100 low lead fuel (100LL) – is found in most small piston-powered aircraft. It's the best fuel we have for the aging fleet that GA employs, but the lead in this fuel is harmful to the environment and to the people who operate in and around these airports and airplanes. Diesel is a common type of fuel used in general aviation aircraft, but it’s not a solution for the entire fleet. Until we have an acceptable fuel solution, manufacturers and operators will be slow to switch to new engines and new fuel ... but they will.

And so the time has come. The EPA and other environmental organizations have teamed up with the FAA to encourage the creation of a fleet-wide alternative fuel. Two companies, Shell and Swift Fuels, have entered into a second phase of testing a high octane unleaded aviation fuel with the help of the FAA. Phase II of the FAA’s Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative (PAFI) is expected to take about two years to complete. It's not soon enough for some, but this quest for unleaded fuel paves the way for advancements in other alternative fuels, too.

6. Solar-Powered and Electric Aircraft

Sensing a theme here? The future is all about being green, and people in aviation are finally getting on board. Bertrand Piccard and his partner André Borschberg demonstrated the potential of solar-powered aircraft in 2016 when they flew the Solar Impulse around the world without a drop of fuel. This type of technology really is the future of aviation.

Piccard, a psychologist, and Borschberg, an engineer and fighter pilot, co-founded Solar Impulse with the dream of soaring around the world on energy from the sun. The idea was to raise awareness about the benefits of solar energy in aviation. Piccard said that he wanted to focus on reducing the reliance on fossil fuels while creating jobs and experimenting with clean energy types. The Solar Impulse flew almost 25,000 miles on its trip, which took 21 days, 17 stops, and no fuel. Let that sink in. These guys flew a solar-powered glider across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans with no fuel. None. Zip. 

A bright future lies ahead for aviation.