The future won’t have flying cars, but who needs them?
Technological and regulatory innovation is driving a boom in aviation that echoes its past.
Transportation is one area where advances in manufacturing and technology are most evident. The world has been completely transformed by the last 150 years of transport development – chances are, wherever you are right now, if you look outside you will see automobiles or a road designed for welcome. Of course, you can only build so many roads, and it’s in aviation that we can see an echo of 20th century innovation.
It is hard to overstate the explosive pace of development that followed the invention of airplanes. From the first flight in 1903 to the first fight in 1911, the first commercial passengers in 1914, through a frantic sprint that took humans a few feet along the shore at Kitty Hawk, to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier under 50 years later.
The crazy acceleration of aircraft development was due to an intersection of enabling technologies emerging at the same time. The first powered flight was made possible by new gasoline engines and knowledge of aerodynamics. Once flight was proven possible, new design and experimental tools led to the development of more complex and capable aircraft, making it possible to get more things done further and faster until, thanks to the parallel emergence of new manufacturing technologies, before long the global society came to depend on flight. The development and refinement of technologies such as boats, wheels, shoes, and other fundamental means of transportation span millennia; aircraft have covered more development ground in just a few decades.
“I like to say that all the interesting things and every idea in aerospace was envisioned somewhere between the 1930s and 1960s,” says Billy Thalheimer, CEO of REGENT, a company that is part of a gathering wave of new innovative aerospace companies. The company is also a great example of how opportunity and innovation intersect in this emerging aerospace. The company builds electric-powered planes that take off, hover, and descend through water. You might think seaplanes have been around for a long time, but there are key differences. For one, instead of operating like a boat with something like pontoons, it functions like a hydrofoil, with underwater fins that mean it almost hovers until takeoff. When in flight, it acts as what is called a wing in the ground boat, flying low enough that the air displaced by the wing creates a cushion of air that helps keep it aloft. These designs add a lot of efficiency, but require newly developed flight control software to maintain aircraft stability. In fact, calling it an airplane is a misnomer.
“We are building something that looks like an airplane,” Thalheimer said. “But there is a human captain at the helm of this ship. They’re not going to do stuff with the stick and rudder, so all of the plane’s controls and the elements that make it dangerous – roll, pitch, altitude control, takeoff, landing – are automatically governed by the command. digital flight. So the only controls we give the captain are the boat controls: left and right, fast and slow.”
Getting something from water to air and back smoothly with simpler controls than most video games is, in fact, an incredibly complex challenge. Although the idea has been around for a while, new technologies have made it possible, not just computer controls, but batteries that replace the need to carry heavy fuels. The other example for innovators, however, is in the much less sexy space of regulation. By operating like a boat, the company is able to navigate a regulatory environment that is less complex and less onerous than that governing air transport. It is a subtle form of disruption, innovation through niche creation and weaving between regulatory frameworks.
Uber developed and shipped its product faster than regulators could react, but there is also immense untapped potential for finding ways to leverage regulation to serve a new conceptual category. An airborne craft, regulated like a boat, can be built to different standards than an aircraft designed to fly at higher altitudes, use highly refined fuels, and share the skies with other craft heading between airports. . A new category of high-speed semi-air ferries could bring passengers to and from any destination with access to a dock, and since most people live near water, it’s a big potential market – it’s no wonder the company already claims some $6 billion in backorders for its trade, impressive for a company that’s only been around for about two years.
They are, however, only one example. A slew of new airlines are turning to everything from vertical take-off and landing taxis to drone-based logistics for electric air carpooling. The next generation of flight is powered by electric motors, operated by intelligent computer control systems, and flies in ways or under conditions that have the potential to forge new lines connecting points A and B. A new ‘S-curve‘ for aviation could reinvent the way we think about transportation as a whole. Even NASA is getting into the game, with their Advanced Air Mobility Missionwhich aims to create local, regional, intra-regional, urban and other opportunities for air transport, “using revolutionary new aircraft that are only just beginning to be possible”.
We have been taught to expect a future of flying cars. In fact, with new computing, electrification, engineering and manufacturing technologies intersecting with traditional modes of transport that are in dire need of updating – both to be more sustainable and to serve populations growing – we can have a future where the car is not the model against which we compare all other means of transport. 200 years ago, people raced steamboats up the Hudson River from New York to Albany, or about 150 miles. A century ago, people traveled the same distance in just over an hour by train. Things have slowed down since then, but in just a few years we may be back on the Hudson River, then above, beating the fastest Amtrak.
The upshot of all of this is that even areas where immense development has already occurred – whether in aircraft or ships – the possibility of a paradigm shift still exists. Sometimes all that is needed is the maturation of other enabling technologies, such as computers, flight control systems, or simply an innovative reading of the regulatory landscape. When the planes first appeared, it was in clear blue skies where no rules had been written. Today’s transport, technology and regulatory networks are tightly intertwined, so the challenge is to find where new ideas can fit in and thrive. For an innovator, constraints are sources of creativity, and it’s a vision of the future more exciting than anything the Jetsons have ever imagined.