While the number and frequency of flights plummeted in 2020, the aerospace industry has used this new-found spare time well, pushing hard into new innovation. This has been crowned by research published by MIT that indicated that a hybrid-electric plane may well be able to progress past the concept stage. The aerospace industry, a notorious polluter, has been striving to find ways to remove its footprint while continuing to allow average people the privilege of flying. Adjustments in the materials and science that contribute to every new vehicle are helping to establish this.
Planes exist on a complex system of alloys and materials that help them to stay aloft while maintaining structural integrity. New materials, and their scalability, are crucial to creating new generations of aircraft. Aircraft are often made from aluminum; titanium metal sheet is a great alternative, but often a little too heavy. However, a ResearchGate submission shows how new advances in China have successfully produced an alloy of titanium that could see widespread use on aircraft. This is good news, both for environmental and speed considerations, as new and tougher materials will help to bring in new generations of aircraft.
New alloys of this sort are being put into futuristic new designs. CNBC highlighted the flying V – not the guitar, of course, that shares the same name. Developed by researchers in the Netherlands in conjunction with national airline KLM, these planes are designed to be lightweight, fast, and have proportionally high capacity – passengers can sit within the wings of the craft. Purported to carry a similar number of passengers to competitors like the Airbus, it will use 20% less fuel at the same time. Underpinning the design is a new aerodynamic vector but, perhaps more importantly, reduced weight from the use of new and cutting edge materials. The use of materials in planes like this is the crucial factor.
Those materials need testing, of course, and new solutions are being crafted to help with that. The US Air Force recently opened their pressure testing lab, which aims to replicate the forces objects experience when subjected to the various pressures of flight at 50,000 feet. The inherent danger of new aerospace designs and processes is that they fail while up in space; this is why pilots undertake G-force testing, for instance. Fit-for-purpose testing equipment that accurately models the impacts of stresses upon materials at higher altitudes is crucial.
This is an invaluable step for testing any instrument or material before it comes into common commercial usage, and with higher and higher altitudes being tested, there raises the prospect of sub-orbital travel. Often seen as the final frontier in commercial flight – at least until the far-away and futuristic prospect of interstellar travel – suborbital flight is providing a way for people to enjoy a glimpse of what lies outside of the atmosphere.
The prospect of touching outer space in a spacecraft is not a new one. Swiss aviation company MiGFlug have been operating short suborbital flights since 2004, according to Wired. Wired are of the opinion that orbital flight might be the next big frontier in aerospace engineering, and that it answers a whole set of questions, including the cost of emissions, energy costs, and material weights. Once you’re in the orbital path, you can be pushed along by the natural forces, after all. Putting this technology back into everyday commercial flights could make the prospect of environmentally friendly and fast travel an everyday thing, rather than the polluting prospect it is now.
New interest has been developed in suborbital travel through the likes of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and other entrepreneurs highlighting their desire to get to space. The former has funded the creation of a conventional, but high-tech rocket; the latter a ‘boost’ system which puts a vehicle into space before embarking on freefall. While many commentators have described these as vanity projects, they also undeniably provide much-needed resources for the research and innovation process.
With more money can come further scientific discoveries, and the real prospect of pushing suborbital flight into the commercial sphere. Indeed, Branson’s Virgin Galaxy are intending to take this path sooner rather than later. Orbital flight won’t be today, of course. It might not even be soon. Hybrid flight is the next step, and advancements in material science will shepherd it in; making the load planes carry on every journey just that bit lighter will save millions in costs and reduces emissions by a significant factor. With money from big business driving forward the push towards space, science can take those extra risks and gain access to the time and equipment it needs to make real innovation happen.