Thanks to developments in next-generation aerodynamics and technology, the aviation industry is about to undergo a revolutionary change. The future of air travel is poised to be more effective, sustainable, and accessible than ever before as researchers, engineers, and aviation enthusiasts work together to rethink how we understand flying.
The aviation industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and it’s under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. The future of flight needs to be efficient and sustainable in order to bring about a greener planet. Fly Net Zero is an initiative by airlines to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. To reach these lofty goals, we’re at a stage where the pursuit of innovative technologies and revolutionary aircraft designs are required.
This article explores how the aviation industry is tackling these issues. From new infrastructure and next-gen aerodynamics to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and electric aircraft, the industry is trying to shape an efficient and sustainable future for air travel.
Morphing Wings and Adaptive Structures
An aeroplane’s wings cannot function as effectively at various stages of flight due to the traditional stiff structure of an aircraft. But as new technologies emerge, engineers may now produce morphing aircraft designs that can alter shape while flying. Morphing wings, which are inspired by birds, hold the potential of optimising flight performance during different phases of flight while also addressing important issues like fuel efficiency, emissions reduction, and manoeuvrability.
Nature has long been a source of invention-inspiring ideas for humans. Scientists have long been fascinated by how easily birds, insects, and even fish adapt to their specific habitats. The idea of morphing wings, which imitate the ability of living animals to change their shape, was inspired by these natural adaptations. Engineers are creating wings that can change their configuration in real time by modelling how birds change their wing forms during various flight manoeuvres.
How do aircraft structures adapt?
The idea of “morphing wings” refers to a number of techniques, each intended to provide a particular aerodynamic advantage. Among these mechanisms are:
- Twisting and bending – The flexibility of the wing structure allows for changes in wing curvature, which affect lift and drag at various stages of flight. Smoother takeoffs, more effective cruising, and increased landing stability are all made possible by this capability.
- Shape Memory Alloys (SMAs) – SMA-based morphing wings make use of materials that adapt to temperature changes by changing shape. Engineers can design wings with SMAs embedded in the wing structure that automatically adapt to changing flight circumstances, maximising performance and fuel efficiency.
- Pneumatic actuators – These actuators change the shape of the wing by inflating or deflating particular areas of it using air pressure. This approach offers precise geometric control over the wing and may be modified to meet various flight needs.
- Electroactive polymers (EAPs) – EAPs adapt their form in response to electrical stimulation. EAPs offer real-time wing morphological modifications when integrated into wing structures, improving manoeuvrability and lowering drag.
A research project into morphing wings started in 2023 at Imperial College London to discover the optimal adaptation of an aeroplane’s wing in response to flight conditions.
Boundary Layer Ingestion (BLI)
The airframe and propulsion system have traditionally been thought of as separate entities while designing aircraft that are currently in operation. As a result, the propulsive efficiency of conventional aero-engine architectures is approaching its limit, and technological breakthroughs are producing decreasing returns. BLI refers to the positioning of engines closer to the aircraft’s fuselage, enabling them to capture and ingest the airframe’s boundary layer flow. The advantages of BLI include improved propulsion efficiency, reduced drag, and better fuel efficiency. Engineers at NASA’s Glenn Research Centre are testing this new type of propulsion system in its high-speed wind tunnel. Testing can take years to complete, but the organisation has said that it will continue BLI technology research and development in the coming years.
Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD)
Using the enormous computer power currently available, CFD is a cutting-edge technology that simulates and depicts the intricate interactions of fluids, such as air, as they move around aircraft surfaces. CFD has transformed aircraft design, performance analysis, and testing methods by giving engineers in-depth insights into aerodynamics and airflow behaviours. It has become a cornerstone of next-generation aerodynamics.
At its core, CFD involves the solution of challenging mathematical equations that characterise the physics of fluid motion. These equations produce a thorough description of how air behaves around an aircraft’s surfaces by taking into account variables including fluid density, velocity, pressure, and viscosity.
Engineers can visually explore and analyse many scenarios without the need for elaborate physical prototypes by using CFD simulations, which provide a digital representation of airflow interactions by discretizing these equations into smaller computational pieces. One of the leading aircraft companies, Airbus, uses CFD to gain a better understanding of aerodynamics and maximise aircraft efficiency.
Urban Air Mobility and eVTOLs
Urban air mobility (UAM) envisions a future where electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, equipped with cutting-edge aerodynamics, ferry passengers and goods between city centres, suburbs, and other urban destinations. By harnessing the power of next-gen aerodynamics, UAM has the potential to revolutionise urban transportation, offering faster commutes, reduced congestion, and a more sustainable mode of travel. In fact, German company Volocopter is trialling the use of its Volocity aircraft at the Olympics in Paris in 2024.
Key features of UAM:
- Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) – UAM aircraft are built with specialised aerodynamics that make it possible for them to perform vertical takeoff and landing, which negates the requirement for conventional runways. They may use roofs, helipads, and even approved urban landing zones to conduct business because of these capabilities.
- Short-Haul Flights – Short-haul flights inside cities and suburbs are best served by UAM aircraft. In comparison to ground transportation, these flights can offer quicker point-to-point connections, particularly during periods of heavy traffic.
- Electric propulsion – UAM aircraft often use electric propulsion technologies to reduce emissions, minimise noise pollution, and promote more ecologically friendly urban transportation.
UAM can reduce congestion in cities by offering an alternative mode of transportation, reducing travel times by bypassing ground traffic, and contributing to global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, thanks to its electric propulsion.
By substantially lowering flight times, supersonic and hypersonic travel offer a paradigm shift in aviation that has the potential to completely change long-haul and international travel. These innovations are expected to revolutionise air travel in the future and create new possibilities thanks to next-generation aerodynamics.
Same-day travel between continents?
Supersonic flying exceeds the speed of sound, which is roughly 1,235 km/h at sea level and changes with temperature and altitude. The renowned Concorde, a supersonic passenger aeroplane, offered a glimpse of the future of supersonic flight in the late 20th century. The Concorde was retired in 2003 as a result of numerous operational and financial issues. However, supersonic airliners are seeing a resurgence and could be back in service by 2029.
American airline, Boom Supersonic recently placed an order for 20 supersonic aeroplanes which are to be called the ‘Overture’. The 201ft airline uses 100% sustainable aviation fuel and can reach speeds of up to Mach 1.7 (2,099 km/h) – the fastest commercial aeroplane in the world. At these speeds, a flight from New York to London would take just 3.5 hours.
Next-gen aerodynamics, at the crossroads between innovation and necessity, have the potential to redefine the way we perceive and experience flight. From the awe-inspiring concept of morphing wings, to the resurgent dreams of supersonic travel, aerodynamics is propelling us towards a future with faster, more efficient, and more interconnected skies. Among the magnificence of these amazing innovations, challenges persist. To harness the potential of these next-generation aerodynamics, it will be necessary to navigate the intricacies of materials, laws, and infrastructure. This will guarantee that the skies of the future are not only faster and more effective, but also safer and more sustainable.