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The Future(s) of Civil Aeronautics

The civil aeronautics industry, beset by concerns about noise, emissions, safety and security, air traffic control delays and inefficiencies, and high fuel prices, cannot survive in its current form. But new technologies could reinvent human flight from the ground up.

HAMPTON, VIRGINIA -- Civil aeronautics is in the midst of becoming a “mature” industry, with all the drawbacks that this entails. For decades, technological advances have been essentially incremental, and the industry remains largely based on long-haul transport aircraft, with an emerging small jet component and a legacy of general aviation markets and products. But it has become increasingly clear that the industry cannot survive in this form.

The problems bedeviling the industry include pollution from emissions, increasing competition (particularly from communications technology, which has made business travel less necessary), air traffic control delays and inefficiencies, expanding noise restrictions, safety and security concerns, and an overall business environment highly dependent on fuel prices. Solutions for all of these problems will probably require a complete reinvention of airplane technology.

The greatest hope is to be found in the ongoing information, Bio-, Nano-, Energetics, and Quantum technology revolutions. The IT revolution and associated “swarm” technologies enable the foremost solution: a “digital airspace” that is wholly automatic in terms of air traffic control, navigation, and vehicle operations. Automatic aircraft operation is already becoming commonplace – especially in the military – but further increases will require a similarly automatic airspace.

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