From atoms to airplanes

Advanced technology writes a new chapter in the science of flight

Tony Velocci
15 November 2015

4 min read

From the way airplanes look to the way they are powered to the very elements that make up their structures, scientists and engineers are significantly reinventing how airplanes are built and how they work.

Imagine the year is 2045 and you are about to board an airliner for a scheduled nonstop flight from New York City to Paris. The aircraft looks the same as commercial airplanes did in 2015, but advanced technology – from the airplane’s systems to the materials from which it is made – will make this flight different from any that humans experience today.

For starters, the airplane is powered by electricity instead of jet fuel, and its structure doubles as a giant battery that collects and stores solar energy. As a result, the aircraft emits no greenhouse gases. En route to their destination, window-seat passengers may notice that the wings – made from lightweight composite materials – will automatically change shape according to flight conditions. Meanwhile, on the ground, a digital “twin” of the aircraft is helping to predict how it will age throughout its 15- to 20-year service life, enabling technicians to identify and fix emerging maintenance issues as they develop and reduce and eliminate delayed or canceled flights due to mechanical problems.

Futuristic? Absolutely. Fantasy? Think again.

These and other advanced concepts are being explored at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Convergent Aeronautics Solutions program to help make possible new capabilities in commercial aviation. Like the NASA program, aerospace companies around the world are working in collaboration with their governments to develop and perfect advanced technologies, tools and processes to meet aviation’s most pressing challenges: faster new aircraft that can be developed more quickly and that are environmentally sustainable, more affordable, and more efficient to operate and maintain.

“Through technology, aerospace companies are imagining the future, and in coming years we will see innovations in all fields of civil aviation that most people can’t even begin to fathom today,” said Wolfgang Demisch, one of the aerospace industry’s most respected analysts.


Aviation accounts for only 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents 83% of total airline traffic. As automobiles, trucks and trains reduce their greenhouse gas footprints, however, aviation’s footprint is increasing due to a global increase in air travel. The IATA projects that air travel will grow at a rate of 3.9% annually for the next 20 years. To meet this demand, Europe’s Airbus, as well as Boeing in the US, will produce nearly 1,900 airliners in 2018, up from about 1,400 in 2015 and more than double the number of aircraft the “Big Two” delivered in 2008. Add Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer into the mix, and more than 2,100 commercial aircraft could be delivered in 2018 – a historically high production rate.

Although some of the fuel-efficiency innovations that will help these aircraft produce fewer greenhouse gases than previous-generation models are still in various stages of development, the pressure is on: IATA members are expected to improve fuel efficiency by 2% annually, a cumulative improvement by 2050 of about 50% from industry emissions in 2005.


IATA members are expected to improve fuel efficiency by 2% annually, a cumulative improvement by 2050 of about 50% from industry emissions in 2005.

It is too soon to predict when such advanced technologies as electric propulsion, unmanned cargo-carrying civil aircraft and higher-precision navigation will show up in production models, but this much is certain: in 20 to 30 years, the commercial aircraft that transport millions of leisure and business travelers – and how those aircraft are manufactured – will be very different.

In the case of business aviation, engineers are developing technology in anticipation of at least one globe-shrinking jet airplane capable of flying between continents at significantly more than Mach 1 before 2025; the actual speed will depend on the final design, but could be as much as 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles) per hour at the high altitudes anticipated for the airplane. For example, Honeywell Aerospace, based in Phoenix, and Rockwell Collins of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are developing cockpit displays and pilot interfaces to enable the crew of a supersonic aircraft to visualize the sonic boom pattern on the ground and modify the flight profile to mitigate the impact.


But innovations won’t be limited to airframes, engines and subsystems. The high-performance composites and ultra-high-temperature materials used to build future generations of aircraft and engines also will take dramatic leaps, starting at the molecular level. Boeing and Airbus already have achieved major weight reductions and associated fuel savings by making greater use of composite materials in their 787 and A350 models, respectively, than any of the companies’ previous commercial airplanes. Meanwhile, private and government research facilities all over the world are modeling new types of alloys and various fibers with enhanced structural properties that will make them stronger and lighter, cheaper to produce and able to perform better under extreme operating conditions.

No less effort is being put into advanced production processes. One such process is additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, the process of producing complex parts by melting and building up layer upon layer of material; it’s the reverse of conventional machining, which carves parts from solid blocks of material. GE Aviation in Evendale, Ohio, for example, is using AM to make fuel nozzles of certain jet engines, and Pratt & Whitney (P&W) of East Hartford, Connecticut, is using AM to make advanced turbine components for some jet engines.

Still, the technology is in a very early stage of development, according to materials and manufacturing engineers. “This is a revolutionary technology,” said Lynn Gambill, chief engineer, Manufacturing and Global Services for Pratt & Whitney. “AM lends itself to rapid, energy-efficient manufacturing of products that can be produced no other way and with greatly reduced waste of material.”

While there’s no question aviation will evolve dramatically in coming decades, the speed at which this evolution will occur is less predictable. Bringing new technology to market will require substantial investment and a willingness to accept some level of business risk, two variables that rarely move in lock step in the aerospace industry, said Aaron Hollander, president, chairman and CEO of First Aviation Services in Westport, Connecticut, an engineering-focused, component-maintenance and repair company. “At the same time,” he said, “the aerospace industry has a proud heritage of pushing boundaries and advancing the state of the art, and I’m confident this tradition will continue.”

See Aerion’s AS2 supersonic business jet:

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