Air travel in 2050 – a glimpse into the future

Compared to other industries, aviation is considered sluggish - the realization of technical innovations in aircraft construction usually takes many years. However, against the background of rising passenger and freight figures, new demands on propulsion technology, an ongoing price war and the balance between mobility and climate neutrality, the question arises: Quo vadis, aviation?

© Lilium GmbH

Innovative solutions to protect climate

The omnipresent topic of recent months and days remains the climate change and what course must be set to counteract it. Again and again aviation is criticized here - flying is not at all climate-friendly. The ambitious goal of the industry is to halve CO² emissions by 2050, despite a threefold increase in passenger numbers. Current research into new propulsion technologies should help to realise this vision. Whether electric, solar or hydrogen drive - the inventiveness of engineers, scientists and designers knows almost no limits.

In face of the European Union's 1.5 degree target and diminishing fossil fuels, the question of the aircraft engine of the future is becoming increasingly urgent. Every day, the 35,000 aircraft (excluding smaller planes and helicopters) burn about one billion litres of kerosene. But that's not the only thing that harms our environment; aircraft noise must also be reduced - by 2050, it should be cut by about two thirds. In Canada, the first all-electric passenger aircraft took off just last year, and in Germany, too, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is striving for the first passenger e-aircraft. According to the coordinator for electric flying at DLR, it is currently possible to convert small machines in particular to electric propulsion or fuel cells. For large long-range jets, this is much more complicated. Currently, the electrification of aircraft is failing mainly because of the low power density and the high weight of batteries. However, the development of electric propulsion systems is increasingly being pushed forward. A hybrid solution is currently conceivable, for example, in which the energy-intensive take-offs and landings take place electrically. In the long term, the battery problem could be solved by burning hydrogen in a fuel cell. In 2016, the prototype of a seven-metre long fuel cell aircraft with four seats took off from Stuttgart airport. A combination of hydrogen storage, fuel cell and high-performance battery for take-off and climb allows a remarkable range of 1,500 km and a maximum speed of about 200 km/h. If the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis using regenerative energies, this combination could even make flying completely emission-free.


 
 

Flying has to become more environmentally friendly in order to meet the industry's self-set goals. © [W] wie Wissen 

Experts therefore assume that the potential for developing lower-emission aircraft will be exploited first. In addition to increasing engine efficiency, the use of alternative fuels offers plenty of potential for reducing CO² or soot emissions. DLR has already produced initial results in this area as well. One example is aviation fuel, which can be produced using biomass or renewable electricity and no longer needs to be produced from fossil oil. This synthetic kerosene is not only CO²-neutral, but also more efficient and, overall, much less harmful to the environment. A further advantage is that aircraft do not have to be converted for this, only the filling of the fuel tank changes. The measurements showed that not only the CO² emissions were reduced, but also the mass of particulate matter by 50%.

Another possibility, which is still far away from mass production, is solar propulsion. The spectacular round-the-world flight of the Swiss Bertrand Piccard in the solar-powered aircraft "Solar Impulse 2" shows that this works.


Solar Impulse 2 with its pilot, Bertrand Piccard

Solar Impulse 2 prepares for take-off – © Milko Vuille, [CC-BY-4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


The electrification of aviation is still in an early stage, but it holds great potential for the sustainable propulsion of aircraft. Experts expect far-reaching changes by the year 2050. The answer to the question of how these developments can be reconciled with current efforts to bring supersonic jets back into service is still being found beyond the 10,000 metre mark at the present time.


Freight and passenger numbers rise despite "flight shame"

The new propulsion technologies should also help to manage the conflict of interests between climate protection and increasing capacity requirements. Low prices and an ever-expanding route network make this possible: 9 billion passengers are expected to fly by 2050. This means that the passenger volume will more than double compared to the current level. This development will also be favoured by the production stop of the Airbus A380 and the change of course from wide-body aircraft to medium-haul jets. This will inevitably lead to growing aircraft fleets and even more traffic in the sky.

Increasing globalization is also causing demand for freight transport to skyrocket. In its Air Transport Report, DLR expects 7.3 million tonnes of loaded freight in Germany as early as 2030 - more than three times as much as in 2014 - and it is not likely that this trend will be reversed 20 years later.


Future of aviation - futuristic cabin equipment

Propulsion technologies and aircraft size are just two aspects of aviation in 2050, and aircraft manufacturers - above all the top dogs Boeing and Airbus - are also coming up with some ideas for the interior. In a video, the American aircraft manufacturer Boeing presents its ideas for the aircraft cabin of the future: the designers' creativity ranges from projections of the sky on the ceiling to oversized, rounded screens. Competitor Airbus goes one step further and integrates common rooms with interactive employment opportunities, conference rooms, ergonomically adaptable seats and ceilings made of glass into its vision of the future. However, despite all the progress made, the space problem will remain in the coming years - at least for economy travellers.


 
 

"The Future by Airbus - Concept plane cabin" - © Airbus Aircraft


Visions of "flying cities" with unlimited space for shopping, sunbathing and pleasure do exist, but even for the year 2050 they are still very ambitious. Somewhat more realistic, on the other hand, is the establishment of so-called "all-wings" with a smooth transition between fuselage and wings. This design is currently used mainly in the military sector, but Boeing is also considering it for civil aviation. Thanks to the significantly greater use of space, the space available in the aircraft could be significantly improved by "all-wings".


A model of a flying wing by Boeing and NASA/X-48B

Boeing X-48B Blended Wing Body 1:12 flying wing model - © NASA


Taxis of the skies - already reality in 2050?

Overcrowded roads, mile-long traffic jams and collapsing local transport systems in metropolitan areas require innovative solutions. Both established aviation companies and start-ups from all over the world are therefore researching aircraft that will shift local transport from the road to the air. Electrically powered "air taxis" could solve two problems at once: by dispensing with fossil fuels, particulate matter and CO² emissions can be reduced considerably, and by shifting local transport into the air, roads are relieved.

What sounds like a distant vision of the future is already technically feasible today. Volocopter made its first flight as early as 2017 and is considered a pioneer for electrified individual air transport.


The latest multicopter by e-volo – Volocopter V2X

The e-volo Volocopter V2X may soon be revolutionising personal air travel – © Matti Blume, [CC-BY-4.0] via Wikimedia Commons


Other start-ups follow a similar path: The electrically powered Lilium Jet from Munich is said to be able to fly 300km for one hour and can take off and land vertically. As early as 2025, the air taxi could start operating as a five-seater and pick up passengers on building roofs.


The vision of the future by Lilium GmbH

The vision of the future by Lilium GmbH: a vertical take-off jet to relieve the overcrowded streets - © Lilium GmbH


Industry giants such as Airbus and Siemens are also working intensely to develop urban aircraft, thereby emphasising the significance of this new sector for the aviation industry. If current developments are taken to their conclusion, travel by air taxi will be as routine in 2050 as taking an underground train is today.


ARTS – Building the future of air travel

The future of aviation promises to be exciting and spectacular. As an experienced expert in industrial engineering and engineering consulting, ARTS is actively shaping the aircraft of tomorrow and is always on the lookout for visionary and innovative employees. If you want to take the future of aviation into your own hands, we offer you the right perspective.

We are helping to shape the future and are always one step ahead for our international customers in the aviation industry. That's why we offer turn-key solutions in industrial engineering, efficient project and process design and tailor-made human resources services for demanding customers. Find out for yourself.


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