Air Transport by 2020

The Sky Above Us: Air Transport  by 2020

The skies at literally all levels above us will very soon play host to all sorts of flying vehicles – Jetpacks, Hoverbikes, Vertical / Short Take Off and Landing (VTOLs, STOLs) and Personal Planes (PPlanes) to name but some. We are set to move off the ground and into the air starting in the next year or two, People need to get around faster both within and between cities and  beyond. The current transport systems  cannot cope with  those needs. An amazing quantity and variety of solutions are being planned, protoyped and developed.  By 2020 we should already be seeing them in our skies.

Things we thought of as science fiction or still far off in the future, we can now see in real life.  Who would have imagined a person flying alongside of jet planes like Tony Start (Iron Man)  or racing across town on a hoverpod like Luke Skywalker in (Star Wars- Return of the Jedi).

             

These videos are not just showing impressive Computer Graphics (CG) nor are they simply prototypes. They are fully functional, tested and developed machines like the JetPack that we see above or the Hoverbike.  The materials technology, the propulsion miniaturization and the dramatic advances in electric power storage  have made the production of these new air vehicles finally possible.  The pleasant surprise of this innovation is that much of it has been started at the family and small firm level by inventors with dreams and passion and not only by big corporations with their teams of engineers and facilities.

Hoverbikes

At the hoverbike level there are already a couple of designs out in the advanced stages of production. One is the Aero-X by Aerofex and the other is HoverBike by Chris Malloy. The Aero-X is expected to go into production by 2017.

Both models have ducted fans for their propulsion and hovering systems but they differ in the number of fans they use. The Aero-X has two fans where as the hoverbike  has four fans but in an overlapping formation. The hoverbikes are two seaters and aim to compete  with two wheeled road motorbikes or scooters. They most closely resemble motorbikes but will most likely have a flying ceiling of 3-5 meters and a cruising speed of 50-70 Km/h.

Further Reading:

  1. Aero-X hoverbike set to take off in 2017
  2. Get around STAR WARS-style: Hoverbike lets you fly at speeds of 45mph – and it could launch as early as 2017
  3. Hoverbike is a revolution in aviation, designed to do what a helicopter does, but cost less and do so better
  4. The future is here: Personal heli-motorcycles near testing phase


PPlanes (STOLs) & VTOLs

The difference between PPlanes and VTOLs is in the way they take off and land.  VTOLs take off and land vertically like a helicopter but with the important difference that their lift and propulsion systems are located either within the aircraft’s body or by being ducted, making them safe to any people around them. Their lift systems have had their downward airflow significantly mitigated.

Image: Moller SkyCar M400 

Creative Commons 3.0 Jeff McNeill

Some promising VTOL models are:

The technology for some of these vehicles is easily scalable allowing them to be developed for greater carrying capabilities. Their design and work orientation allows them to function in a variety of forms ranging from personal air vehicle to search and rescue, fire fighting or general assistance vehicles. There work orientation allows them to have a  flight ceiling of a few hundred meters, which is considerably higher than the hoverbike range.

PPlanes unlike VTOLs and as their name suggests are Short Take Off and Landing vehicles (STOLs) and therefore require certain facilities or area specifications for take off and landing.

Two models that are already in production are the American Terrafugia TF-X and the Slovakian AeroMobil 3.0.  Althought these are not the only PPlanes  in production they are particularly interesting because they are roadable planes (flying cars) rather than helicopter variants. Rotating blade STOLs such as the PAL-V ONE share some features and functions with PPlanes but they require more specialized take off and landing spaces.

Commercial passenger or cargo planes

Personal air vehicles will supplement rather than replace commercial passenger planes and jets.

With more and more people travelling by air all the time and with environmental regulations becoming stricter,  passenger airplanes are being forced to make major changes.  Peoples’ need to travel faster from point-A to point-B means that some planes will have to travel faster, and by faster what is envisioned is supersonic. The public also want planes to greatly reduce their carbon footprint, to be quieter overhead and to provide very comfortable experience without increasing costs.  The airplanes of the future will have to change in order to meet all these demands.  1.7 Million respondents to an Airbus survey in 2012 highlight passenger priorities in shaping the future of air travel.

“Passengers really care about the environment, 96% of them told us we want more green flying, more sustainable growth.  Only a few percent are interested in speed and even then it is more about the whole travel experience.  The element they like the least is really the delays. Delays at the check-in, delays for passport control, delays

in flight when you have to circle around before you can land, delays on ground, and delays to get the luggage, delays for the ground transportation and this is what we are going to focus on in the coming years.” (Airbus Representative in Olsen 2012)

Once mass private transportation leaves the ground and gets into the air things will quickly become very complex. Where as now transportation is limited to the two dimensions of space x,y  on the ground,  the only way to alleviate congestion on the roads is to use a version of the 3rd dimension “z” by going underground with underpasses or overground with bridges. That solution isn’t that practical because there is a limit to the amount of underpasses or bridges that can be constructed and still be useful. Using the 3rd dimension of air above ground becomes more appealing as it opens up a much greater area to move in. Vehicles of different types will be able to travel in parallel levels vertically one above the other.

Image: Public Domain “Layers of Atmosphere”
Image: Bredk. Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 

At the moment, from the ground on a clear day we may see some passenger jets in the upper Troposphere or lower Stratosphere, but very little in between.  In the near future what we will predictably see is this in-between space being far more extensively used.

Wheeled vehicles would be on the ground, hoverbikes would travel in the air above them.  Personal PPlanes would fly above the hoverbikes and probably in the mid Troposphere.  Finally the big passenger or cargo planes would fly above all in their own allocated space.

Infrastructure and Regulation

The infrastructure and regulation which will be needed to enable all this to happen is challenging. The European Union (EU) Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS) has been working on some of these problems since 2008.  CORDIS PPlane project is one project which  has been working to ready the regulatory environment in advance to enable  this move into the air. CORDIS is aware of the urgent need to provide alternatives to our currently overcrowded roads and for the need to use air space much more extensively.

 “gridlocked highways increasingly burden our society. Currently the doorstep to doorstep average speed for cars in the United States is 35mph and decreasing year by year. Statistics show that , on average, cars carry only 1.3 people even with high occupancy vehicle (HOV) in place. The situation in Europe is not better” (CORDIS 2013

The leading and driving factors which will allow both the ecological (fuel) and economic (financing) development of these new air vehicles is advancement in production technology which is now leading towards evolution and radical innovation… speed, lighter materials and low noise are major considerations.

In 2013, CORDIS, which is coordinated by French (ONERA), administratively and supported by Israeli (Integram Communications) and 11 other EU organizations (including the University of Pattras Greece) drawn from research and academia, published a final report and summary on their Personal Air Transport Systems (PATS). The CORDIS proposition outlines a variety of Concepts of Operations (Con Ops) in the following way ” A high level formal description of how system elements operate and interact in order to safely carry people and luggage from an origin point to a destination point”. The ambitious aim is eventually to achieve this with no on-board human piloting skills.

 “- roadable vehicles that carry you from door to door (ground and flight phases combined;

   – non-roadable vehicles that fly urban paths and are being operated wherever the vehicles are, from city centre to city centre (thus most likely suitable for VTOL or STOL air vehicles);

   – non-roadable vehicles that fly urban paths but being operated from PPLANE ports (Pports) in city centres“ thus most likely suitable for VTOL or STOL air vehicles;

   – flying from small PPorts on the outskirts of towns, as a complementary transportation means (not a direct door to door solution).” (CORDIS 2013

These Con Ops suggestions envisage multiple types and altitude specific aircraft, supporting the multiple aerial level usage  referred to above.

As the shape and technologies of the airplanes change so to will the shape and design of airports they take off and land from. Air travel as we know it today will soon be a memory if even some of these current trends prove true.  Neither aircraft or airports of the future are predicted to look like those we are currently familiar with.