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Your questions answered: Civil aerospace

07.11.2016

What’s in the air? Four experts answer your questions on the latest developments in civil aircraft.

What’s in the air? Four experts answer your questions on the latest developments in civil aircraft.

Civil aircraft technology has developed considerably over the past decades, but from outward appearances it takes an expert to detect any changes in most airliners. Is a change on the way? And what technologies are being developed that might affect the way that most of us fly? We put your questions to a panel of experts from academia and industry.

Chris Gear (CG), chief technology officer and senior technical fellow, GKN Aerospace
Jessica Kowal (JK), environment, international development and policy, Boeing
Dr Rob Hewson (RH), senior lecturer in aircraft design, Department of Aeronautics, Imperial College
Prof Jonathan Morrison (JM), chair of experimental fluid mechanics, Department of Aeronautics, Imperial College

QA4

Boeing’s concept design for a future airliner
What is the actual means of achieving any of the proposed changes, especially as none of the major players will take the risk of radical change?

CG: I believe these changes will occur when environmental pressures, i.e. oil prices, start to increase, and tougher legislation with tighter regulations on engine emissions and noise come into play in 2030 and again in 2050. Today’s aircraft will need work done on them to achieve these requirements. Until then, OEMs can play safe with products and stay with existing industrialisation. The unknown factor will be China and if it starts to innovate then things might move quicker in the western world, but this is probably unlikely in the next 15 years.
How likely is it that these changes will include a move towards autonomous aircraft?

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CG: There will be some move towards autonomous aircraft but mainly in military, not civil, due to safety and passenger discomfort and the security aspects with multi-sensor devices that can be hacked into. I think all the real development will go into military or private aircraft for a long while.

RH: There are already autonomous civil aircraft operating; the rapid increase in the use of remotely operated rotorcraft for filming is one area. DHL has delivered time-critical goods to a pharmacy on the island of Juist 12km from the north coast of Germany by an unmanned aerial vehicle, and both Google and Amazon are exploring the use of such vehicles to deliver packages. I believe large commercial aircraft will have pilots in the cockpit for the foreseeable future, in part due to passenger perception. The level of automation in the control of aircraft is set to increase, with the role of the pilot continuing to become increasingly that of a manager of the complex engineering system.

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Is it true that the real medium-term innovations are to be found on the ground with ideas to help reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from taxiing?

CG: Definitely the application of electrical wheel devices for moving aircraft around the airport would help noise and engine emissions, especially in the large airports we are seeing proposed in Europe and that exist in the rest of the world. There is still more to come from innovations in engine performance and operating temperatures.

RH: There is ongoing research on the powered taxiing of aircraft, most notably the Electrical Green Taxiing System developed by Honeywell and Safran, reducing GHG emissions while the aircraft is on the ground. However, this is only a small part of the large and long-term effort to reduce GHG emissions from civil aviation; recent developments include the development of lightweight composite materials to produce light and very light structures – reducing the amount of fuel and emissions required for the aircraft to fly, the development of materials capable of operating at high temperatures, leading to more efficient thrust, and advanced aircraft aerodynamics – reducing drag, thrust, fuel and emissions. There have also been a number of flights that have operated using biofuel, reducing reliance on oil reserves and potentially decreasing GHG emissions. A number of these biofuels are already certified for normal operational use in aircraft.

JM: GHG emissions can be reduced by improvements to engine efficiency; flight-path management and airframe frictional losses. The last is probably the most challenging, and significant improvements to engine efficiency have already been made. Biofuels offer something for decarbonising flight, but the social impact of growing biofuels on a thirsty, hungry planet is significant.

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