Back to the future—a reassessment

Forecasts change constantly as conditions evolve.

Meeting by hologram—it just isn’t the same.

“On the green front, advanced electronics and engine technologies will allow aircraft to fly faster and cleaner than ever, using Jet A, clean diesel or automotive fuels. In addition, there will be better fuel economy and capabilities that will extend range and increase fuel load.” However, in the range of 20–40 years the picture gets murky.

If AI becomes smart enough to monitor flight conditions and advise the pilot about the optimum course and speed, aircraft separation and other circumstances formerly monitored by the computer between the pilot’s ears, eventually it will become smart enough to fly the plane. For Bushnell and Pearson, that could happen as early as 2030, and maybe even sooner.

Jetcraft’s Elliott concurs, and pictures some of the wonders soon to come. “Before leaving the ground, your future aircraft will have a full and clear flight profile from beginning to end, with no requirement for human interaction,” he says.

“Mapped in 5D [3D airspace plus time and predictive motion], the flight will be shown in such detail that an aircraft that may be ‘nearby when 150 nm at 086 heading from CLT and at 10,000 ft, 2 hours from takeoff’ will be shown real-time on your graphic predictive flightplan.”

Weather, winds, and later holo­graphic navigation guidance with passenger selective entertainment will also be provided. “Fully automated flight operations will make flying an aircraft simpler than driving an automobile,” says Elliott. “Because windshields will go away, allowing supersonic aircraft operations, holographic flight tunnels will be displayed in front of the pilot for takeoff and landing, with faded versions for enroute use.

The tunnel will guide the aircraft automatically.” He continues, “The holographic tunnels will be provided by a series of high-Earth-orbit satellites or some later technology. They will be regenerated constantly, based on the 5D predictive airspace, showing the movements of all air operators and weather.

In addition, the tunnels will adjust the aircraft consistently and constantly to remain inside the tunnel tube, thus shielding the plane from turbulence, weather and other craft.” TechCast’s Halal foresees even more heavily automated aviation. “Our experts think 30% of all flights will be made by small private aircraft about 2028,” he says.

”With artificial intelligence appearing everywhere, it’s easy to envision a new generation of cars, trucks, military vehicles, robots and aircraft, all guided by automatic control systems, collision avoidance, radar mapping, navigation and the other smart features now emerging on intelligent vehicles that operate by themselves.”

But will flying really be necessary, given the possible role of videoconferencing as a substitute for travel? For now, it is suitable only for routine meetings. In 30 years, to pick a number almost at random, that may no longer be true. By then, we will have genuine virtual reality, with sights, sounds and even odors and touch sensations pouring directly into our brains.

We will be able to sit in a New York office, or in the bathtub at home, and yet “attend” a conference in Beijing, even shaking hands with our colleagues. Or meet friends from Warsaw, Cape Town and Mumbai for a shared outing in Rio that takes place with total realism only in our minds.

And why bother actually going somewhere when you can have the same experience without leaving the comfort and safety of your own office or home? Of course, there will still be reasons to travel on business. When meeting new associates, most people will still want to “press the flesh” at least once.

New offices and factories will still require groundbreaking ceremonies that must be attended in person. And the most sensitive business data will—with luck—be more secure if conveyed in person rather than over a computer network. Yet such occasions make up a relatively small fraction of our travel.

The rest may migrate into virtual reality, where airplanes and their pilots no longer have a role. Bushnell believes that the airlines will disappear because there is too little demand to support them. There is another factor to consider as well. When I worked for the US Navy in the early 1950s, we discovered some unexpected biases in our forecast results.

When we examined how they had worked out, we discovered that the shortest-term forecasts were almost invariably too optimistic. For predictions with target dates of 3 years or less, we had to double the time estimates. Engineering and manufacturing a viable product invariably took longer than expected. But for long-term forecasts—anything over 15 years—we had to cut the times in half.

Over such long periods, unpredictable breakthroughs either made the hard problems easier or made the technology we had been thinking about obsolete. One way or another, a device that we expected to see in 30 years would arrive in 15, or something else would come along to replace it.

So the virtual reality that Bushnell expects to see around 2040 could be here as soon as 2025. Other cutting-edge technologies may be affected by this phenomenon. In our Technology Timeline (Pro Pilot, Dec 2009, p 54), artificial intelligence exceeded human intelligence as early as the 2020s.

The 2030s were the time of 50 to 100-passenger supersonic transports and fully automated “hop in and go” personal aircraft. And in the 2040s, “tele-everything” was expected to replace most physical travel, while the arrival of “4D” airspace that projects development in time as well as the traditional three dimensions eliminated the need for traditional air traffic control system.

Given our experience at the Navy, it may be necessary to pull these forecasts closer in to the present. For this generation of professional pilots, air travel will expand constantly, while both airplanes and the airspace they inhabit will become quicker, cleaner, safer and more convenient.

For the next generation, given the insights of our contributors, we wonder just how many pilots will be needed a couple of decades ahead. We may be looking ahead to a time when flight reverts to its original nature. It will not be an industry—just one of the most wonderful adventures those of us who are privileged to fly will ever experience.

Marvin Cetron is a forecaster/futurist and president of Forecasting Intl. His study for the Pentagon, Terror 2000, written in 1994, contained numerous predictions of the subsequent course of terrorism.


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