The aviation industry is constantly evolving. With its strong focus on safety and regulation, and long development times for aircraft, changes sometimes appear slower than in other industries. There are many current innovations and new technologies, however, that are set to make big changes to the industry. The following are five of the most important.
Development of electric power
There is a lot of discussion in the aviation industry about future power sources and propulsion for aircraft. While we are a long way off seeing a large commercial aircraft powered with stored electricity, hydrogen, or even nuclear power, changes are underway to reduce the way aviation fuel is used.
Electric propulsion is the furthest ahead today, and the one most likely to make a difference soon. The challenge here is with the weight of batteries required, and this will limit large-scale use for some time. There are plenty of smaller scale advances, however.
Smaller aircraft are already flying, and size will increase as technology develops. Cessna, for example, has launched the 9 seat eCaravan, and the Scandinavian airline Widerøe is working to develop a 12-seat electric commercial jet by around 2026.
“Air-taxis” are another ongoing development. Several companies now have proposals or early prototypes for electric vertical take off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles. These will carry small loads over short distances, with possibilities for corporate, cargo, or passenger taxi services. Governance and legislation changes here could be as challenging as the technology.
Artificial Intelligence in the aviation industry
We are seeing the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in most industries. In aviation, there are plenty of ways AI is being used now, and plenty more likely in the near future.
Many parts of the industry create large amounts of data and AI is being used to better understand this and make future improvements. This ranges from customer behaviour and analytics, revenue management, and flight scheduling to aircraft performance and fuel efficiency.
There are many examples of this in active use. In the area of customer data, United Airlines has implemented an extensive system to monitor customer profiles and activities. It claims this has led to a revenue increase of around 15%. With aircraft maintenance, “predictive maintenance” techniques are being used by many airlines to optimise resources during maintenance, and to better understand which parts need attention.
The introduction of ADS-B technology
Aircraft and ATC communications have not changed significantly for decades. Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast (ADS-B) technology is starting to change this and will have many implications over the coming years.
The technology allows aircraft to determine their position from satellites and then transmit this (along with other operating information) to ATC on the ground. This will result in more accurate and complete ATC information, and coverage in previous hard to reach areas and aids with flight planning. This will not just improve safety; it will also, ultimately, improve efficiency. Aircraft will be able to be tracked all the time, and positioned closer. This will lead to more efficient routings for transatlantic and transpacific flights in particular.
ADS-B can also receive information as well as transmit. This will facilitate more accurate onboard information, such as weather conditions, airspace updates, or details of other aircraft.
It is early days for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) in the aviation industry. However, this rapidly improving technology has many applications under development.
It can be used to improve the passenger experience on the ground and in the air. Gatwick Airport, for example, has trialled an AR system to help passengers navigate through the airport. Onboard, there are huge possibilities for much more engaging entertainment systems. Replacing traditional systems with just VR headsets could also be lighter – always an important consideration. There have been trials so far with many airlines – including British Airways, Iberia, and Qatar Airways.
There are also many applications for staff use and training. There have been several cases of use for flight crew and pilot training. There are possibilities too in areas such as ATC and aircraft maintenance.
New airport technology – improving security, and passenger experience
The airport experience is set to improve with new technologies over the coming years. This will be especially welcome given the delays and staff shortages seen at airports in 2022. Many of these will make travel more secure – but critically will also speed up the airport experience.
Biometrics is already being used for check-in and immigration in several countries, and use of this will expand. Further integration with mobile platforms will lead to more ticket (and boarding pass) free travel. As just one major example, British Airways has recently expanded biometric boarding (with automated face recognition) from domestic trials in the UK to international routes to the US.
The COVID pandemic expedited several schemes to use monitoring technology to help congestion and social distancing in airports. This can also be used to monitor and route passengers through the airport efficiently.
Beacons technology is another emerging innovation that will help guide passengers through the airport. This uses Bluetooth signals from fixed devices around the airport to track and guide passengers using personalised apps and AR.
Security checks are set to improve too. Regulations have changed faster than passenger and baggage screening technologies. This has led to the situation currently where passengers need to remove electronics, liquids and often even shoes. Especially when coupled with staff shortages recently, this is a major bottleneck. New millimetre scanners are already offering improvement for body scanning, and new CT-based technology under development will allow much faster baggage screening.
There are many things underway in the aviation industry that will lead to change over the coming years. These are some of the main ones to look for, especially with the impacts on the passenger experience and the increasingly important focus on efficiency.