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The Crystal Ball

Special Report - And Now for Something Completely Different

Some 16 billion passengers are predicted to use the air transport system in 2050. Moving that many people in a manner to which they will have become accustomed will take good planning and great ideas.

“The current businesses of airlines could change to be fully integrated with other parts of the transport system to minimize delays and hassle, and maximize efficiency,” says Futurologist Robin Mannings in an Airbus report on The Future.

"Intelligent transportation systems could organize optimal journeys so that all waste, error and delay are accounted for, and the traveler need only follow real time instructions delivered by a personal wireless communications device that allows detailed tracking.”

Mannings highlights the many other factors that could influence future design. Congestion will force navigational techniques to allow far greater proximity between aircraft and there could even be vertical take-offs.

Pod designs—whereby passengers are pre-seated in a compartment that is simply loaded on to an aircraft frame ready for flight—could help move travelers quickly and effortlessly.

Ultra-reliable engines will be embedded in the airframe and will be positioned closer to the rear of the structure to improve cabin comfort and reduce fuel burn.

 Even though projects such as Solar Impulse have heightened awareness of sustainable energy sources, it is unlikely that large aircraft could ever be completely dependent on them.

Nevertheless, The Future predicts that photovoltaic panels could feature, the resultant energy powering certain onboard systems. Energy harvesting, which uses power given off by other bodies, may develop enough to offer an additional source of energy.

 In the cabin, smart materials could become transparent on command, giving passengers magnificent views. Cabin materials are also likely to be self cleaning, perhaps even self repairing, like the human skin.

First-class cabins could even go that one step further with holographic technology able to turn the suite environment into whatever the passenger chooses.

Perhaps most importantly, concludes The Future report, it is unlikely that one design will fit all. Smaller, faster, supersonic travel could sit alongside bigger, slower, cheaper aircraft for leisure traffic. Variety will be the spice of the aviation business.

What Happens Next?

Minor airframe developments, such as sharklets—an innovation on the upright tips at the end of a wing— will continue in the short term. Large aircraft will also benefit from the increasing use of composites. Engine manufacturers expect high bypass turbofan engines to see entry into service (EIS).

 Within the next ten years, composite understanding should improve enough for a second‑generation composite aircraft and turbofan engines will also advance. Combined, these should be enough for about a 15% reduction in fuel consumption.

The longer term will see engines with unducted fans or open rotors, and airframe designs based on blended wing body concepts and morphing techniques. Significant efficiency gains should result.

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