There’s no stark dividing line between the criteria that I flashed up in the last few paragraphs. In fact, there will be major aviation projects that bring these all together in a new way. With the gathering pressure to address aviation’s climate impact there’s a strong desire to fly but in radically different ways. Take the blended wing body (BWB) concept. It’s not new to aerodynamics but until recently the concept has remained on drawing boards and in marketing brochures.
It’s likely that the next big adventure in aircraft design will be a shape that has no distinct separation between the fuselage and wings. Such blended structures may have properties that make them much more environmentally friendly. Yet, they will still be able to be operated from relatively conventional airports. If we combine a BWB with high levels of automation and systems integration and throw in hydrogen propulsion for good measure, there are going to be a myriad of emerging safety issues to consider. That’s one for the list.
Electrification is a snowball that’s rolling gathering ever greater speed. Industry has its eyes on high-power fuel cells. Hydrogen-powered fuel cells are a green alternative to combustion engines. They may have few moving parts, but exotic materials and high temperatures present a bucket load of technical challenges it they are to be used at altitude in all weathers. Promising technology may tick many boxes, but can it be made safe? That’s another one for the list.
To fly, and to do it efficiently watch the birds. They have mastered the art of formation flying to harness its advantages. Formation flying may reduce fuel use by minimizing drag. Experimentation with drones flying in formation are being done. However, the use of this way of flying for large transport aircraft is still a research subject. Procedures exits for formation flying for military and general aviation aircraft (aerobatics). What safety issues need attention to make this work for passenger aircraft?
It’s possible to go further for each aircraft in-flight too. The extensive use of artificial intelligence to optimise flight paths has much potential. Since the introduction of Wi-Fi in the cabin, there’s occasions when passengers have better real-time weather information than flight crew. The ability to meet all the collision risk objectives and pick up the most advantageous winds is achievable. Aircraft innovations like tactical trajectory optimisation are great at lowering fuel consumption. Any safety issues emerging from the use of such systems will likely be linked to their level of autonomy.
Integrating autonomous aircraft into controlled airspace is a challenge of today. As we move forward the variety of autonomous aircraft will grow. An application where the commercial marketplace may drive rapid adoption is that of large autonomous cargo freighters. Emphais on the word “large” is appropriate given that it’s 3rd parties that will be at risk in the event of accidents and incidents. The loss of cargo can be insured but how will society react to accidents that may cause fatalities on the ground, if these operations proliferate?