POSITION & HOLD

Back to the future—a reassessment

Forecasts change constantly as conditions evolve.


Gulfstream G650, due in 2012, will be the next step in the trend to bigger, faster, more luxurious bizjets.

As Jetcraft’s Elliott points out, “NextGen is the engine of the FAA vision until at least 2018, but note that not all the airlines are on board. Without the air traffic infrastructure changes needed, the growth of aviation and associated business will be much slower.

Add to this the slow and painful FAA approval process of everything from adding a single switch in an aircraft to implementing a new ATC system at an airport. Having said that, the new WAAS implementation has been going fast now that it’s fully understood by all the FAA agencies involved.”

Beyond the cutting edge

British forecaster Ian Pearson seems to live 20 years or so further into the future than most of us. Pearson gave the keynote address at the 2010 edition of the “Mad Scientist” meeting—a no-holds-barred look into the future of technologies of interest to the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

In that talk, he gave advance warning of some remarkable developments that are likely to find game-changing roles in aviation as well. In the immediate future, he envisions “electronic jewelry”—digital devices we carry with us, and even wear, for a host of purposes.

In the next few years, we will begin to see units smaller than an average brooch capable of monitoring our health, sensing our environment, exchanging data with passersby, providing biometric identification and access to secured areas, and even flashing captions onto our field of view to identify local landmarks and personalities.

Devices such as this electronic jewelry will automatically form their own networks using extremely short-range radio or infrared, Pearson adds. They will form an alternative to the Internet for fast, secure communication and data exchange.

Picture the instruments, computers and hundreds of individual sensors scattered around your aircraft all talking to each other, working to improve aircraft performance in ways you are seldom if ever aware of. But picture too the perfect way to share illicit files, coordinating a terrorist attack free from any possible surveillance. On another research track, computer and video displays will shrink ever smaller.

By 2015 or so, Pearson forecasts, high-resolution computer displays will fit onto a contact lens. We will be able to manipulate data, capture what we see into computer files, view captions that identify people and surroundings, translate signs in foreign languages, and even swap out whole new images for the “real world” perceived by the naked eye. If we are fond of Gothic architecture, the buildings around us will appear Gothic.

If we prefer steel-and-glass modernism, a contact lens will make it so. And if we need a telescope to view what is going on at a distance, the appropriate image will appear on our retinas. For pilots this will be the ultimate HUD. But the most fascinating theme Pearson sees in future tech is what he calls “NBIC convergence.” NBIC stands for “nano-bio-info-cogno.” Over the next decade or so, nanotechnology will shrink our electronics and some mechanical equipment to sizes not yet possible.

Tiny nanotech sensors will help neuroscientists figure out how the mind works. Their insights will feed into machine intelligence. Powerful artificial intelligence (AI) will accelerate R&D in every sphere. And these ad­vances will make it possible to connect the body and machines, bringing powers that today would seem like magic.

Over time, our machines will grow so intelligent and so well integrated into our bodies that it will become extremely difficult to tell where they end and we begin. Before 2020, tiny computers, each in their own microscopic capsule, will be suspended in gel, communicating with each other and organizing themselves spontaneously into complex arrays.

These aggregates will have their own power supplies, sensors, multicore processors, data storage and communications to “talk” with the outside world. Pearson believes these gels may evolve the first true artificial intelligence. A few years later, these devices will be condensed into bacteria with custom DNA.

They could be present on any surface. We might even inhale them. Secrets will be a thing of the past. But the real revolution will be “smart yoghurt.” The bacteria in this brainy breakfast food will be capable of forming extraordinarily complex structures, redesigning their own offspring and adapting to any environment.

They will be, in effect, co-owners of the planet. Pearson warns that “smart bacteria could control minds of people infected, enslaving them and making them into zombies” or reshape the planet to suit their own convenience, making it uninhabitable for the rest of us. But they might also amplify our intelligence, give us whole new senses such as the ability to feel magnetic fields, and even grant a kind of artificial immortality, with our consciousness living on in cyberspace without end.

Flightpath

How do these visions fit into aviation? Very well, at first—then perhaps a bit uncomfortably. Over the next decade, new technologies make aviation cleaner, safer and a whole lot smarter. Fuel consumption declines and so do emissions, while synthetic fuels reduce the world’s dependence on natural petroleum.

In real terms, the cost of fuel probably goes down, not up. Networks of sensors fill the airplane, monitoring navigation, engine operations and even possible corrosion and fatigue. Aircraft become woven into a data network, exchanging course location in real time so that airspace conflicts vanish into history.

The NextGen ATC system makes it possible to pack more aircraft into tighter airspaces, so air travel continues to grow, yet travel delays also begin to disappear. The air becomes a much more comfortable place for pilots and passengers alike. Aircraft manufacturers affirm this scenario—all with healthy enthusiasm for their own company’s products.

A typical comment comes from Airbus Product Marketing Dir Exec & Private Aviation David Velupillai. He says, “Technologies continue to ‘buy their way’ onto our aircraft, such as runway overrun protection, which we have introduced on the A380, and which will progressively be rolled out on the rest of our modern family. We are also bringing in fuel-saving sharklets on the wingtips of the A320 family.

“There is always something new and worthwhile emerging,” he says. “When it’s mature enough for use on our airliners and corporate jets, you can look to Airbus to be a leader in implementing it.” It is a sentiment echoed by his firm’s competition. All this fits neatly with a recent prediction from Teal Group’s Aboulafia.

“High-end growth will allow private aircraft to continue to improve in performance. In 2012, Gulfstream’s G650 will arrive as the largest traditional business jet built yet. Other new private jets will establish new levels of comfort and capabilities. The private segment will almost certainly see the arrival of 1 or more supersonic designs within the next 10 years.

Avionics suites will get more sophisticated and user friendly.” So it goes for the next 10 or 20 years. At Piper Aircraft, Pres & CEO Kevin Gould translates some of these forecasts into hard product terms. “I think flying will become even safer than it is today as OEMs deploy integrated avionics systems that take situational awareness to new heights,” he says.

“I’m talking about systems that can see through clouds and all manner of obstacles by using infrared technology and more. We’ll see systems that can take control of the aircraft in emergency situations and broadcast what the plane is going through and what emergency procedures the aircraft will automatically deploy to land safely—all without any human intervention.

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