x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Step aboard the flight of the future

Breaking the sound barrier once seemed like the stuff of science fiction, until the arrival of Concorde. Now Airbus is sharing its ideas for Smarter Skies that could transform air travel once again.

The airport of the future will have no queues and no check-in, while passenger jets will fly in formation. Courtesy Airbus
The airport of the future will have no queues and no check-in, while passenger jets will fly in formation. Courtesy Airbus

To a child who watched the first powered flight in 1903, breaking the sound barrier was science fiction - yet if he lived to his 70s, he would have seen Concorde soar. Now Airbus is sharing its ideas for Smarter Skies that could transform air travel again, writes David Black

Change happens fast in aviation.

A seven-year-old boy drawn by idle curiosity to the beach at Kittyhawk, North Carolina in December 1903 would have seen the Wright brothers lurch into the air for man's first powered flight.

By the time he was 73, he could have bought a ticket for a flight on the 2,150kph Concorde.

For several years, the global plane maker Airbus has had a think tank mulling over such amazing developments.

There, many ideas bubble away, projecting technological developments and, via computer wizardry, creating worlds no less fantastical. In 1903, the lad would have had no inkling of aviation today, where passengers fly in a steel tube at more than 12km above the Earth at almost 1,000kph.

The Airbus team's latest visionary foray into the future, Smarter Skies, is a look at what it might be like to fly in 2050, when the imperative to protect the environment is more urgent and the availability of fossil fuels distinctly curtailed.

However, don't imagine flying will be any less popular, says Christopher Emerson, the senior vice president for strategy and market forecast at Airbus.

"For the first time, our vision looks beyond aircraft design to how the aircraft is operated both on the ground and in the air to meet the expected growth in air travel in a sustainable way," he told a seminar in Dubai this month.

"We see a future with more flights, fewer emissions and quicker passenger journey times.

"At Airbus we believe that in the future, more people should be able to share in the benefits of air travel, that a more connected world can also be a more sustainable world and that the right combination of technology and talent - along with the right investment, support and cooperation - can make this happen."

So, let us hop aboard the flight of fancy into smarter skies imagined by Airbus and glimpse what flying might be like 40 years from now.

For a start, the airport of the future is a very different place. No queues and no check-in, with security carried out while we walk to the aircraft along aisles lined with sensors to board through numerous wide doors - more like getting on a train than a plane.

Who we are and whether we have paid is checked by palm-recognition. Our luggage is taken from us at the door and slides directly to the hold before we take our seat.

Take-off is assisted. Our airliner taxis on to a high-powered bogie and perches there before being propelled down the runway to launch speed. The result is quicker acceleration on shorter runways and a steeper climb to cruise altitude. It also means the aircraft is powered by smaller engines and thus uses less fuel than pre-2012 planes.

Once in the air, it gets even more dramatic. "If birds can do it, so can we," argue the think tank experts. No, the passenger jets of the future won't flap their wings - they are talking about formation flying.

Airbus says that by riding in another aircraft's slipstream at a distance of about 1.85km, fuel burn could be reduced by 10 to 15 per cent. The technology is close to being available today to ensure safe separation between aircraft. On long-haul flights, over oceans, where a number of services will be operating on the same route, the concept makes sense.

Looking even further into the future, they've also envisioned giant flying aircraft carriers that pick up short-haul jets in the air and piggy-back them as they circle the world, dropping them off close to their destinations - allowing for long-haul, point-to-point flights between regional airports continents apart to finally make sense. These "flying arks" would stay airborne indefinitely, constantly being refuelled and replenished by shuttles from the ground.

Our airliner is an attractive, ultra-long composite tube, with slim wings, engines recessed into the fuselage and a U-shaped tail, all aerodynamically tailored to cut noise, drag and fuel burn.

The airframe mimics the skeleton of a bird - strong where needed and light everywhere else. The skin is made from "intelligent membranes" that turn from opaque to transparent on command, doing away with windows and providing a panoramic view of the sky and the Earth. The material is "self-repairing" - made from electrically conducting carbon that uses minute charges to alter its shape at a molecular level, ironing out dents and resealing tears.

And fuel? That is grown, in the form of algae fed by a mixture of sunlight and carbon dioxide - a substance the world today is dying to get rid of - and produces a liquid with all the properties of kerosene.

In the cabin, we no longer sit in cramped ranks, forced to choose between economy, business or first class. Rather, we move between zones - for sleep, entertainment or just watching the clouds go by.

Cabin furniture is woven from frond fibres, a living carbon material that is renewable and can adjust to a passenger's body shape.

The seats are also fitted with energy-harvesting devices that are able to capture body heat and use it to power on-board systems. That part isn't futuristic fantasy - such a system is already in use on the Stockholm metro. Solar panels on the wings and fuselage also provide some on-board power.

Back in the cockpit, the navigation technology that is keeping us from colliding with all the other jets en route to North America, Australasia or wherever we are bound kicks in as we near our destination. There are no holding patterns, no working our way down through different levels, the pilots constantly throttling up or back as we are positioned by controllers on the ground for final approach to the runway.

Nothing is random in the sky anymore - our flight path and times were known at our destination before we departed, allowing us to fly at cruising altitude until we are almost atop our airport. Once there, the pilot cuts the engines and descends directly onto the runway in a continuous, uninterrupted sweep.

And as we roll to a stop, without the need for reverse thrust, an electric tug arrives and pulls our plane to our gate.

The doors silently slide open and we are greeted by the smiling ground staff.

Welcome to the future.