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April 2012
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Plane Talking

Science-fiction takes a step closer to reality

In light of the announcements in aircraft design, biofuel production, and air traffic management implementation made recently, with three major developments at the 6th Aviation and Environment Summit alone, advances in futuristic ideas for aviation are appearing in abundance. There seems to be an exponential curve characterising technology, and the following are spectacular examples.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the prestigious and established centre for science research and innovation, is pioneering a bi-plane (yes! A bi-plane) that could travel at supersonic speed using half the amount of fuel used by former supersonic aircraft such as Concorde, due to enormously reduced drag. Qiqi Wang, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT has been researching the use of two wings, because two wings are better than one when cancelling out the drag created when travelling at supersonic speeds. Motivation to research the concept has been credited to Busemann’s 1950 bi-plane designed for supersonic speeds, however much like Busemann’s aircraft, the supersonic bi-plane is not yet off the ground. Qiqi Wang still has a couple of issues to iron out before a full scale model is built, however it is fast approaching on the horizon. His research will soon be published in the Journal of Aircraft.


From the supersonic and intercontinental to the local and low speed, the European Commission as part of its 7th framework for research and development funding, has been financing the ‘PPlane’ project. A purely investigative and conceptual plan to explore the possibility of creating unmanned public air transport a possibility, PPlane would be a system to transport anywhere between one to six passengers from one PPort to another. The aircraft, as you can see, are like something out of a sci-fi film and are intended to be powered electrically, however a breakthrough in technology has been cited as the key to unlock the door to PPlanes whose existence is targeted for anytime between 2030 and 2050. The project is groundbreaking on a number of levels, not least because the system would be fully automated with a team of ground based pilots ready to jump into command at any moment of despair. The point is that road transport is becoming increasingly congested, so why not use the sky with new ways of managing air traffic and making the most of the space available. Using electric aircraft is expected to cut emissions and noise, while the use of pilotless and automated planes cuts the cost.

Even though these projects are some distance from completion, the ideas make sound sense, especially because of the benefits they could bring to the environment in reduced emissions, as well as facilitating faster travel which, as seen in the “Aviation: Benefits Beyond Borders” report, corresponds to greater and wider global growth, socially and economically. Let’s hope the exponential curve of technology keeps going in the same direction.