The Future(s) of Civil Aeronautics

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.

A digital airspace would in turn enable a complete revolution in personal mobility. Together with new technologies enabling Super-Short Takeoff and Landing (superSTOL) a digital airspace would put safe, quiet, affordable, street-in-front-of-your-house personal air vehicles within sight. So-called flying HumVee’s (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles) would create a superb transportation system for areas lacking intercity roads, and eventually would supplement – or perhaps supplant – automobiles.