Since the introduction of the jet engine into large civil aeroplanes in the 1960s, the market has converged onto a design configuration that has not changed dramatically since. The amount of innovation and improvement of nearly every sub-component within the aircraft has resulted in planes that can fly nearly half way round the globe in one go and allow airlines to charge a reasonable price for a seat. However, it is possible that we are about to enter a period of innovation far greater than this.
Within Europe, aerospace manufacturers have set themselves tough environmental targets. An ambition to reduce CO2 output per aircraft by 75% compared to levels in 2000. Similar targets are set for NOx emissions and noise.
These targets are extremely challenging and incremental technology improvements to the existing large civil aircraft configuration is unlikely to provide what’s required. More free-thinking and radical change will be needed. Configuration and operational changes will need to be reviewed and these provide the 'big' Innovation that is likely to be required.
A number of challenges will need to be overcome to enable a configuration transformation, whilst some new ideas could provide the disruptive thinking needed to accelerate this process to meet the target timescales. These include the current cost and timescales for new aircraft development, the strict airworthiness regulatory framework and the lack of real competition to the Boeing / Airbus duopoly in the large civil aircraft market.
For a new aircraft to be viable, development costs and timescales must reduce. Artificial Intelligence (AI) could provide the tools to help. Once the initial aircraft configuration is determined, an AI could very rapidly carry out the detailed design and analytical work, particularly on the airframe structure. Aerodynamics could be optimised rapidly; airframe efficiencies, weights and manufacturing routes could be determined in weeks and not years. Combined with an increase in the use of additive manufacturing techniques, a step-change in timescales could be achieved. It's only a matter of time before AI could be integrated into engineer-in-the-loop processes.
The current airworthiness regulatory framework is compliance-based and in some places don't allow much space for innovation. If the regulation framework were moved towards a performance-based approach, the design space for the innovative solutions required increases. The underlying premise for any change is clearly to achieve zero safety risk.
Airbus and Boeing are currently targeting incremental improvements to their fleets. Although neither company have announced any firm plans for completely new aircraft models this may change thanks to new entrants to the market. Bombardier are introducing the C-Series, which is targeted at the short-haul market and will compete with the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. COMAC, the state-owned aircraft manufacturer in China, is close to entering the short-haul market and has recently announced a larger, long-haul, aircraft targeted for service in the mid-2020s. Airbus and Boeing will likely need to respond if they want to maintain their market shares.
There is also the potential change in the way transport is provided to the public and the way aircraft are sold. 'Transportation as a service' is gaining momentum on the roads through services like Uber and the promise of self-driving cars, so why wouldn't this extend to aircraft? This could increase the need for different aircraft configurations that can provide a more personable and customisable experience to the travelling public. Aircraft could also be sold by the manufacturer as a service, much like aircraft jet engines are today.
With all these macro factors acting the time is ripe for 'big' innovation in aviation. As ever, the challenge is picking the right technologies that will provide the biggest benefit at the minimum risk. Aerospace could be about to enter a phase of innovation not seen since the 1940s to 1960s with the Second World War, the entry into the jet engine age and the introduction of wide-body aircraft. It could be the best time to be an aerospace engineer.