• sustainable aviation fuel
  • Decarbonization
  • Drone Technology

What Is the Future of Aviation?

Christian Albertson
May 10, 2022

Plane

In the short history of controlled, powered flight, humans have come a very long way. From the Wright Brothers’ short first hop of just 120 feet to landing a person on the moon in just 66 years, technology in aviation moves extremely fast. So what is the future of aviation? It’s an interesting question. The easy response is that the answer depends on which aspect of aviation we are talking about. The answer becomes more complicated as we look at just a few of those aspects, including decarbonization, speed, and autonomy.  

Decarbonizing Flight

There is a push to decarbonize flight, reducing emissions of aircraft to zero, while delivering passengers and cargo to their destinations in the same timely manner. Conventional-powered aircraft converted to electric propulsion are flying today, with new purpose-built electric aircraft designs destined to be airborne, certified, and operational by 2030. Hydrogen-powered aircraft are being flown as well, with aircraft companies testing more aircraft with this alternative fuel source, producing zero emissions. Existing aircraft are being flown using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Derived from feedstocks and waste products, SAF are compatible with current engines and infrastructure systems, yet produce an estimated 80% less emissions over the lifecycle of the fuel. 

Super Speed

For long distance flights, multiple countries and corporations are attempting to revive supersonic flight, which has been absent from commercial aviation since the retirement of the Concorde in November 2003. Beyond supersonic, hypersonic aircraft, those that will fly more than 5 times the speed of sound, are being developed to move passengers anywhere in the world in less than 2 hours. These supersonic and hypersonic aircraft are also being designed to utilize SAF to reduce emissions. 

Need to get from downtown to the airport quickly, electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft are being developed to accomplish just that. Designed to take off from helipads and purpose-built vertiports, eVTOL aircraft are expected to reduce ground traffic by replacing taxis and reduce emissions at the same time. eVTOL air taxies are designed to fly with pilots now but will likely be autonomous, flying without pilots, soon after they go into service.

Who’s Flying this Aircraft?

Beyond passenger traffic, companies are developing ways to deliver everything from coffee to medical supplies by aerial drone or eVTOL aircraft. Small drones are being utilized around the globe to deliver on-demand items to remote locations and are being rolled out in more populated regions. Delivery companies have placed orders for eVTOL aircraft that will carry larger packages between cities or hubs. Many of these aircraft are also being designed to be autonomous. 

As passengers of these new aircraft, we must be ready to accept new technologies and place our trust in technologies we may not be comfortable with. Questions will likely come up: Can we trust fuel that is made from plants, or trust an electric aircraft that doesn’t burn fuel? What will happen if the battery runs out? Is it safe to fly at 3,000 miles per hour? What do you mean that nobody is flying the aircraft? We must remember that many questions were asked when the Wright Brothers first introduced their aircraft to the public. 

Aerospace innovations are becoming commonplace, with new technologies expected to change the way we fly over the coming decades. We will become as accustomed to hypersonic aircraft the same way biplanes were accepted in the early 1900s and jetliners in the 1950s. Electric flying taxis will become as accepted as the yellow taxis of New York City and coffee delivery by drone will be as routine as stopping at the drive-through on your way to work.