Air travel in 2050 – a glimpse into the future

Things move slowly in the field of aviation when compared to other sectors – technical innovations in aircraft building generally take many years to complete. Against a backdrop of increasing passenger numbers and cargo volumes, new requirements for propulsion technology and enduring price competition, the question nevertheless needs to be asked: what does the future hold for aviation?

© Lilium GmbH

Whether powered by electricity, solar or hydrogen, and from giant airliners to individual aircraft for personal transportation – the wealth of ideas created by engineers, scientists and designers knows no bounds. One thing, however, is clear: in the year 2050, flight will be truly spectacular!


Getting off the ground – an additional 70 million passengers by 2030

Low prices and an increasingly extensive route network have made it possible, meaning that passenger numbers are expected to rise by around an additional 70 million by 2030. The German Aerospace Centre, DLR, anticipates 175 million passengers in Germany in 2030 – equivalent to an annual growth rate of around 3.3 per cent, confirming a clear trend that has continued since a year of crisis for the sector in 2009. Looking beyond national borders shows that passenger numbers are growing even faster internationally, with worldwide passenger numbers growing from around 2.5 to 3.3 billion since 2009. Asia, in particular, has played a major role in this growth and provided increasing passenger numbers.

It is worth noting that experts do not believe that the large number of additional passengers will result in a substantial number of additional take-offs and landings at German airports. The higher demand can largely be met by the introduction of larger aircraft, meaning that the total numbers of take-offs and landings will only increase by around one per cent annually.

 Airbus A380 and Boeing 747 in flight

Sizeable aircraft already: Airbus A380 (holds 853 passengers) and Boeing 747 (holds 660 passengers)


Worldwide economic growth and increasing globalisation have also resulted in increased demand for air cargo. According to DLR’s air traffic report, 7.3 million tons of freight are expected to be carried in Germany in 2030 – more than three times as much as in 2014.

Even though the increase in total numbers of flights is only increasing moderately, at least in comparison to passenger numbers and freight volumes, the aviation industry is currently facing major challenges. Each day, around 35,000 aircraft (excluding smaller aircraft and helicopters) burn around a billion litres of kerosene. If the EU Commission has its way, emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases per passenger kilometre should be reduced by 75%. Meanwhile, noise emissions should be cut by two thirds over the same period.


Electricity, hybrids, hydrogen, solar – which technology will win out?

The question as to what will power aircraft in the future is becoming increasingly urgent. Ambitious emissions limits and increasingly scarce fossil fuels are placing pressure on the aviation industry. Spectacular aviation journeys, such as the circumnavigation of the globe by the Swiss pilot, Bertrand Piccard, in the solar-powered “Solar Impulse 2” are stimulating engineers’ imaginations, even though they cannot yet meet contemporary requirements in terms of payload, range, and security.


Solar Impulse 2 with its pilot, Bertrand Piccard

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


Instead, experts tend to assume that the potential for developing lower-emission aircraft will be pursued first. As well as improvements to the efficiency of engines, the use of alternative fuels has a great deal of potential to reduce CO2 and particulate emissions. Non-fossil, organic fuels derived from algae or other plants have already been added to the fuel mix of aircraft and test flights and, according to DLR and NASA, this results in particulate emissions being halved. The disadvantage: the specifications required for biofuels to replace fossil fuels in the aviation industry are higher than in the automotive sector, resulting in higher prices. Nevertheless, the sector is pursuing an ambitious goal of increasing the portion of biofuels to ten per cent by 2025.

Simultaneously, the development of electric power units continues to progress. Currently, electrification of aircraft is challenging due to the high weight and low energy density of batteries. However, a hybrid solution is conceivable, which could use electricity for energy-intensive take-offs and landings. Over the long term, the battery issue could be solved by combusting hydrogen in a fuel cell. In 2016, the prototype of a seven-metre long, four-seater hydrogen fuel cell aircraft prototype took off from Stuttgart Airport. A combination of water storage, fuel cell and a high performance battery for the take-off and initial climb enables a substantial range of 1,500 km with a maximum cruising speed of around 200 km/h. If the hydrogen is generated via electrolysis using regenerative energies, this combination could result in zero-emission flights.

Electrification of air travel is still very much in its infancy; however, it offers a great deal of potential for sustainable aircraft power. By 2050, however, experts anticipate more fundamental changes.


The fight for passenger numbers – futuristic cabin equipment

What will the aircraft of the future look like? In view of the tough competition for passengers’ business, aircraft manufacturers – particularly the market leaders, Boeing and Airbus – are letting their imaginations run wild.

The American aircraft manufacturer, Boeing, has presented its vision for the aircraft cabin of the future in a video. The designers’ creativity extends from projecting the sky on the ceiling on oversized, curved screens. Its competitor, Airbus, has taken things a step further, integrating communal spaces with interactive activities, conference rooms, ergonomically adjustable seats and glass ceilings in its vision for the future. Nevertheless, passenger space will remain an issue over the coming years despite all this progress – at least for economy passengers.


 
 

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


While visions of “flying cities” with unlimited space to shop, sunbathe or have fun certainly do exist, they should be considered highly ambitious, even for the year 2050. On the other hand, it is more realistic to envisage the use of “flying wings” which feature a smooth transition between the fuselage and the wings. This approach to construction is currently commonplace among military aircraft and is now under consideration by Boeing for civilian aeroplanes. Thanks to the significantly greater available space, there could be much more passenger space available in “flying wings” than in current aircraft.


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

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


Personal air transportation in 2050

Overcrowded roads, traffic jams that extend for several kilometres, and collaborative public transport systems in major cities demand innovative approaches to solutions. Established aviation businesses and startups from all over the world are therefore researching aircraft that could move local transportation from the roads to the air. Electrically powered “air taxis” could solve two problems at once: by giving up the use of fossil fuels, particulate and CO2 emissions could be substantially reduced, while shifting local transportation from the ground to the air would remove the burden on streets.

While this might sound like a vision for the distant future, it is already technically feasible. The Karlsruhe-built Volocopter VC1 completed its maiden flight as far back as 2011 and is seen as a pioneer of electrified personal air transportation. Just a few years later, the Volocopter is on the verge of beginning test operations as an autonomous air taxi in Dubai.


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 startups are pursuing a similar approach: the electrically powered Lilium Jet, which has been developed in Munich, offers an impressive range of 300 km and can take off and land vertically. By 2025, the taxi could begin operations as a five-seater, picking up passengers from the rooftop landing areas.


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 air travel promises to be both exciting and spectacular. As experienced expert in industrial engineering and engineering consulting, ARTS is actively involved in creating the aircraft of tomorrow and is constantly seeking visionary, innovative employees. If you would like to take the future of aviation in your own hands, we offer the right prospects for you.

We are working to create the future and aim to help our international customers in the aviation industry to stay one step ahead of the game. For this reason, we offer turnkey industrial engineering solutions, efficient project and process coordination and design, as well as bespoke human resources services for demanding customers. See for yourself what we are capable of.


You might also be interested in:
Industrial applications of bionic exoskeletons - Bionic 4.0
Satellites: Versatile orbital helpers
Research Projects on the ISS