The Future of Aviation
The Future of Aviation
By Stephen Pope / Published: Aug 04, 2014
Flying along the Atlantic Coast recently I glimpsed the future of aviation without even realizing it at the time.
Enjoying my unique view of the sunlight glimmering on the waves as they pounded the sandy beaches below, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a traffic target on my DiamondStar's Garmin G1000 flight display. I looked right and spotted a Mooney approaching the coast from the west at about my altitude. I could tell from our converging flight paths that we would both probably end up in roughly the same spot if neither of us altered course.
I started a shallow descent and kept an eye on the other airplane. As my nose dropped and the altitude tape slowly began to unwind, I received a traffic alert from the G1000 system. It was followed almost simultaneously by a terrain alert as a portion of the ocean on my synthetic-vision flight display turned an ominous shade of red.
Cool, I thought, satisfied that the safety systems in my airplane were doing their jobs.
There was no real danger, of course. I knew my actions were prudent and safe. I leveled off at 500 feet as the other airplane zipped overhead and banked left to fly up the coast in the opposite direction.
My airplane, however, wasn't so sure about the wisdom of my actions. It was telling me that the experience was frightening.
I didn't think about it again until long after the flight was over and the airplane was back in the hangar, but it suddenly dawned on me that we have started creating airplanes that not only are intelligent but which also have personalities all their own and can even inform us about their emotional state. Just as an uneasy passenger sensing danger might tense up in the right seat, the airplane can also tell us when it is feeling scared.
It's the same with the latest automobiles, which can warn us if we stray out of our lane on the highway and even apply the brakes for us if we're in imminent danger of having an accident. Airplanes today are being designed with similar technologies. For example, Garmin's ESP (electronic stability and protection) system built into its newest cockpits will gently nudge the flight controls when we're hand-flying should we give the airplane cause for worry, such as getting too slow on the base-to-final turn.
We're just scratching the surface of what we can accomplish with intelligent, intuitive airplanes. And really that's one reason why there has never been a better time to be an aircraft designer. Nearly everything that we as pilots are concerned with while flying — the avionics, the flight controls, our sources of propulsion, even the fundamental shape of the machines we fly — holds the very real possibility of changing and evolving in dramatic ways as the technology driving the design of future aircraft races inexorably forward.
The young technologists and engineers of today will play a major role in this transformation. Of course, there's no way of knowing for certain how aviation will evolve and change in the next 20 years, or even what amazing technology might become available in the intervening time. Recognizing that the pace of change will only accelerate, the FAA, with input from the aviation industry, is rewriting light aircraft certification rules to give designers more flexibility in how they create tomorrow's airplanes and systems — what's known as the Part 23 rewrite. The changes, if successful, will make it easier and less costly to bring new technologies quickly to the market, all while improving safety.
The following is a look at several of the ways in which flying in the future might be a significantly different experience than it is today.
From Google Glass to Garmin's new D2 pilot watch, we're beginning to get a preview of the trend toward wearable electronics that very well could transform the whole experience of how we fly in the future.
Some pilots have already started using Google Glass — a miniaturized computer that the wearer dons like a pair of eyeglasses — for a number of flight-related functions, including completing electronic checklists, viewing charts and maps, and calling up weather information.
The next step would be to employ technology that can sense the position of the wearer's head. This would allow a wearable head-mounted display to become an indispensible cockpit resource, permitting, for example, the traffic collision avoidance system to call out a target at 9 o'clock that the pilot could electronically highlight on the display by turning his head left. Linked with a full database of Jeppesen nav data or a ForeFlight subscription integrated into the flight management system, a head-mounted display could potentially take over where the iPad or Android tablet leaves off.
Likewise, Garmin's D2 watch is an early first step that will undoubtedly lead to improved capabilities in future wearable avionics. There's no reason to think that the cockpit of the future will need an instrument panel at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Future manufacturing techniques that take advantage of new nanotechnology materials such as graphene — an extremely thin layer of graphite that is many times stronger than steel while enabling far better conductivity of electricity than copper — could lead to the creation of super-thin wearable avionics that have the ability to bend and flex to fit around a wearer's wrists or thighs.