Wednesday, May 07, 2014

What is the Future of Aviation?

So I've picked up a new side job because that's just how I roll--Social Media Pathfinder for Powering Imagination, an organization dedicated to advancing and advocating for improving aviation technology. How, exactly, does one do that, and how can I help? I'm still working that out. For now, I'm going to take a little time with this blog to share what I'm reading.

How, Exactly, Do You Make Airplanes Better?
Human beings have been flying in heavier-than-air crafts ever since 1903. The basic forces at work in flying a plane are lift, drag, thrust, and gravity. Since very little can be done about gravity, inventors have worked on increasing lift, reducing drag, and increasing thrust. As aircraft have increased in their performance and utility, they have become more specialized, and each type of plane has its own performance needs...and that performance can always be improved.

Commercial Aviation
Powering Imagination's primary effort is to improve aircraft performance is commercial aviation--those big, winged aluminum tubes we see filling our airports. While I'd love to tell you that P.I. is looking for ways to improve in-flight comfort, they're more interested in how to make the planes' performance better in the following ways:
  • Quiet Flight: making aircraft engines quieter--in the air and on the ground. The last big advance on commercial airliners was the high-bypass turbofan. But the Environmental Protection Agency keeps raising the bar for noise pollution standards. Powering Imagination is looking to demonstrate a quieter electric aircraft over the Grand Canyon.

    In addition to the standard subsonic aircraft we see every day, there are folks who would like to make supersonic aircraft quieter--so quiet, in fact, that those Earth-rattling sonic booms practically disappear. And then, of course, there's Elon Musk, who wants to reinvent aviation as he's been reinventing rockets and automobiles. Musk believes it's feasible to build an electric supersonic aircraft that performs both vertical takeoff and landing.
  • Improved Fuel Efficiency and Emissions: One of Powering Imagination's founders is Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Among their early feats, to demonstrate the commercial viability of aviation, the Lindberghs flew a "Great Circle" route from the Pacific Northwest north over Siberia, then south over Japan to China. Their grandson is looking to refly that trip 85 years later, this time to demonstrate the effectiveness and efficiency of sustainable fuel technologies.

    While a lot of work is being done on cutting-edge, non-kerosene-fueled aircraft, the conventional power plant builders--Pratt & Whitney and General Electric--have their own programs to wring as much power for as little fuel as possible within the current state of the art.
There are challenges to any new technology. Electric aircraft capable of flying 200-300 passengers across the Atlantic are unlikely anytime soon. Right now solar-powered planes capable of long-distance travel, like Switzerland's Solar Impulse, have massive wingspans and carry only one person.

A friend who's more tech-savvy than I am called electric aircraft "a joke," adding, "There are certain unmanned surveillance aircraft where that feature would come in handy, but today those aircraft can only be launched and recovered in very calm weather. Despite huge wingspans, their payload capability is quite low."

So there is skepticism, to be sure. Biofuels are not the only answer, either, and they'll need a lot of federal support to prime the pump, so to speak, before they become commercially viable. Whether that can or should be done is a debate reasonable people can make. But still: we never used to need an excuse to advance the state of the art. Why not keep trying?

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