Since the earliest days of atmospheric flight, aviation has connected the world and increased global productivity, economic opportunity, and quality of life. Maintaining these benefits requires that industry, government, and academia collaborate in ensuring safe skies, enabling a sustainable industry to preserve our environment, and developing a smart workforce supported by smarter machines.
During the 19th century, when most rational humans regarded the notion of a winged flying machine as the epitome of the impossible, visionaries took a much more positive view.1 This outlook pushed us during the 20th century to fly higher, farther, faster, and more comfortably. As we move through the 21st century, today’s visionaries will propel us forward by flying lower, closer, cleaner, and smarter. We are at the dawn of urban and regional flight integrating ground and air vehicles in new ways.
At this current inflection point, aviation is emerging aggressively from the pandemic to turn setbacks into comebacks. The aeronautics industry is embracing opportunities in the near term that will contribute to its enduring legacy of changing society and reshaping everyday life as we know it.
Autonomy is certainly going to be part of America’s transportation future. With clear operational guidelines, regulations, and standards for accommodating and incorporating autonomy, we see a thriving integrated urban and regional airspace in the next decade. The benefits of autonomy will enhance safety for everyone and enable capabilities we are only just imagining.
The AIAA Autonomous Vehicles and Systems Task Force recommends a national research and development (R&D) plan for autonomous capability for aeronautics and aerospace. Autonomy will drive new missions and capabilities by improving performance, lowering cost, enhancing just-in-time maintenance, and/or lowering risk for aeronautics systems. We are seeing a global race to integrate autonomous components, especially in Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) systems. Just as the Biden Administration has set a visionary goal for electric cars, autonomous air systems, including AAM aircraft, should soon follow a similar visionary path.
The widespread use of UAVs and drones — both commercial and recreational — prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to adapt its certification processes. Similarly, the FAA must facilitate safe use of AAM systems for passenger and cargo transport. As the FAA refreshes its certification strategy, we expect to see clear specifications, regulations, and standards emerge that will strike an appropriate balance between safety and innovation.
Space launches are close to a daily occurrence and launch sites are infringing on urban environments and large metropolitan areas. The integration of commercial air traffic, AAM, and space launch traffic must receive government attention to help drive global regulatory and certification strategies that ensure safety and continued smooth sustainable economic growth for all stakeholders.
Sustainable Industry and Environment
How do we power aircraft that can take us into the next century without leaving more environmental and resource challenges for our children and grandchildren?
Oil has fueled 20th-century revolutions in mobility, economics, geopolitics, and our way of life. Even as aviation moves to ever-more efficient use of petroleum (e.g., the airline industry has improved fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent annually from 2009 to 2020), we know that those advances are insufficient to protect our civilization in coming decades. We must do more.
Incremental advances in aerodynamics, lightweight structures and materials, manufacturing processes, and air traffic efficiencies will provide only part of the solutions. For significant carbon reductions, more efficient aircraft engines are needed. The solutions we pursue will reduce the overall need for energy and will enable shifting to more sustainable sources of energy. The efficiencies from advances in electric aircraft propulsion will complement revolutionary aircraft concepts.
The transition from oil to new energy sources presents challenges for every facet of aviation systems. The R&D infrastructure in the aeronautics community is ready to meet these challenges through development of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), hydrogen fuel cells (HFC), hydrogen turbine propulsion (HTP), battery-electric vehicles (BEV), and innovations yet to be discovered. Past R&D investments ensure that battery-electric vehicles deliver improved performance by a few percent annually. HFC systems are likely to be cost-competitive with internal combustion in as little as five years. “Green” hydrogen production costs are declining to levels competitive with oil. Meanwhile, SAF is available today but needs support for greater production and wider adoption. If the community focuses and invests in these products and systems, aeronautics can play a leading role in decarbonization.
Can we achieve decarbonization by 2050? Yes, we have a chance. What will it take? AIAA recommends several steps, including:
- More government support for the goal of carbon-free aviation by 2050
- Deployment of SAF for current airline fleets, while also addressing fleet recapitalization
- Adoption of hydrogen fuel cells and other clean, renewable energy sources
- Focus on new R&D
- Development of the “green” aviation workforce.
Smart People. Smarter Machines.
We need smart people. The aeronautics industry relies on a robust STEM workforce. Yet, we face a skills gap as a sizeable percentage of the workforce is approaching retirement eligibility, and we have experienced pandemic-related layoffs and career switches. Industry leaders and policymakers must continue working together to support the growth, evolution, and diversification of the future workforce to fill the job needs across aviation and aeronautics.
We need smarter machines. The fourth industrial revolution — digital transformation — will create exciting opportunities for revolutionary transitions. Interdisciplinary work fostered by advanced collaboration promises to yield breakthroughs in aeronautics and aerospace systems. Digital transformation is driving model-based technological advances such as digital engineering, digital twin, and digital thread, which are expected to accelerate the pace of R&D to deployment of advanced systems significantly. Such innovation can lower overall total lifecycle cost and ultimately improve customer experiences.
In aeronautics, we are information rich, but knowledge poor. We need smarter collaboration between people and their machines and tools to harvest the data. Digital transformation will allow us to capture knowledge, use it in models, and then apply it to new materials. Rapid prototyping and integration will accelerate first-design feasibility. We also need to enable artificial intelligence and machine learning to make our machines smarter. Shifting routine tasks to machines will allow our workforce to focus on tackling the next generation of technology challenges.
Your greatness is measured by your horizons. – Michelangelo
The aeronautics community will continue to chase the horizon. Innovators will push technology to deliver new products and services for the benefit of society. In the next five-to-ten years, many new capabilities will be introduced, and the next generation will experience flight in ways we are just imagining. AIAA is excited about advancing these opportunities as we shape the future of aeronautics and aerospace.
This article is written by Dan Dumbacher, Executive Director, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. For more information, visit here .
- Tom D. Crouch, “Rocketeers and Gentlemen Engineers, A History of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics... and What Came Before.” 2006. p. 1.
Aeronautics R&D Policy Platform Paper
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