The future of air transport: Airbus unveils concept airplane for 2030

Airbus has unveiled its vision of the future of flying in 2030: a concept plane that's sleek, slim and smart.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus on Monday unveiled its Concept Plane, an "engineer's dream" machine that envisions the future of air transport in 2030.

The plane imagines what the airplane would look like "if advancements in existing technologies continue apace," with consideration to the design of aircraft materials, aerodynamics, cabins and engines.

The aircraft has long, slim wings, semi-embedded engines, a U-shaped tail and a lightweight, "intelligent" body that all target greater fuel efficiency, fewer emissions and less noise.

The plane was announced at the 2010 Farnborough International Airshow.

"It's not a real aircraft and all the technologies it features, though feasible, are not likely to come together in the same manner," said Airbus executive vice president of engineering Charles Champion in a statement. "Here we are stretching our imagination and thinking beyond our usual boundaries."

It's an honorable goal. The airline industry rates pretty high in terms of adverse environmental impact, and the future of green transportation often overlooks the plane for cars, buses, streetcars and high-speed trains to reduce urban congestion.

But planes are still necessary for long-haul transcontinental travel, and rethinking them can make a big difference for countries and corporations alike.

A look into the future, by Airbus:

  • Seats made from ecological, self-cleaning materials that change shape for a snug fit
  • Walls that become see-through at the touch of a button, allowing 360-degree views.
  • Holographic projections of virtual decors, allowing travelers to transform their private cabin into an office or bedroom.
  • Use of green energy sources such as fuel cells, solar panels or even our own body heat to power some aircraft systems.
  • Rethinking the flight itself: aircraft may even fly in formation like birds to reduce drag, fuel burn and emissions.

Here's some of what futurologist Robin Mannings had to say in the company's official report (.pdf):

Research in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science are providing a growing set of opportunities. Some examples include; new light and strong composite materials, electronic plastics, fuels created directly from growing plants (that are effectively scrubbing the atmosphere of unwanted carbon), smarter computer and avionics systems and transport informatics.

A key challenge will be to bring the futures of new technology, of good design and innovative business together. For example; a future aircraft will need to be much more fuel efficient and need radical approaches to engines, airframe and avionics. The needs of passengers will require inspired cabin designs with the latest display and entertainment systems and new efficient boarding methods will be needed to help older passengers. The current businesses of airlines could change to be fully integrated with other parts of the transport system to minimise delays and hassle and maximise efficiency. Passengers will demand flexibility and an end to the hassles associated with flying.

Intelligent transportation systems could organise optimal journeys so that all waste, error and delay are accounted for so that the traveller need only follow real time instructions (delivered by a personal wireless communications device that allows detailed tracking).

Airports are travel bottlenecks so a future challenge will be to find innovations to streamline the part airports and aeroplanes play in multimodal travel. People do not want endless concrete, endless traffic queues, overcrowded rail journeys and endless delays, queues and the hauling of luggage.

Self guided and remotely piloted aircraft are currently being pioneered by the military so perhaps the current model of human pilot and human air-traffic controllers may be redesigned. It seems unlikely that a passenger plane would have no pilot but a freight plane could be a candidate. Certainly if the demand for travel increases and the skies are hugely crowded, then radical new approaches to safe control and guidance will be needed. Many advances in navigation, wireless and sensor technology are predicted and research into machine learning and cognitive sciences are suggesting that in 40 years, there may be few human tasks that could not be performed by a machine.

The goal of sustainability will need new approaches to materials, recycling and manufacturing. As well as fuel efficiency, all parts of the lifecycle of aircraft will need to take account of their
environmental impact. Recycling and re-engineering may be as important as the initial manufacturing processes.

Looking to the future we can learn many lessons from nature. Biomimicry inspired mankind to follow birds into the skies and it is likely that we can copy many other tricks that nature has evolved.

Smart new materials should enable designers to create airframes that are as light as possible. Smart on the outside to aid aerodynamic and operational efficiency and smart on the inside to maximise passenger comfort and enjoyment. Electronics and computing will be integrated into the designs and it can be envisaged that computer chips will be everywhere and in almost everything.

An exciting future, indeed.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards