The long and the short of it is that an airplane can get only so big, so heavy and so fast, before it becomes structurally unsound. It's the same reason why bi-planes became museum pieces. Alerts of cracks in the superstructure of Airbus A380 superjumbo jets, currently the biggest things flying, could be a warning call that the current model -- basically just a tube with wings -- is reaching the limit of its abilities.
In response, designers, from Lockheed Martin and Boeing all the way to NASA, are going back to the drawing board and reinventing the plane, taking into account passenger capacity, structural strength, fuel efficiency, aerodynamics and all-out speed. The following is Steele Luxury Travel's traipse though some of the ideas currently being bandied about.
Take note: you may be seeing, and sitting, in one these sooner than you think.
Is it a brave, new world or what?
Who said flying had to be a group experience? Inspired by the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) V-22 Osprey and looking like something straight out of "The Jetsons," NASA's Puffin Personal Aircraft (personal!) is the flying equivalent of the car in your garage. Designed to go about 150 miles an hour for about 50 miles, a distance will only increase as battery design advances, the Puffin blends oldie-but-goodie ideas like till-rotors with modern ecological awareness by being electrically powered. And don't think this is just a pipe dream; prototypes are built and being tested; a mere 60 horsepower gets pilot and Puffin in the air. <em>Photo: NASA</em>
Everyone agrees that faster is better, and faster-than-sound supersonic jets certainly fit the bill. But they are so fast they create unavoidable window-shattering sonic booms, and therein is the problem. The Concorde was allowed to hit Mach 2.0 only once it was safely out over the Atlantic Ocean; NASA and several other design firms have since been trying to mitigate booms and bring supersonics "on land." As it is, the Supersonic Green Machine by Lockheed Martin may just be the Holy Grail: by using an inverted V engine under the wing configuration, the plane's booms can be lessened and still reach a speed of Mach 1.6. Designers hope to get it flying by 2030. <em>Photo: NASA/Lockheed Martin</em>
From the minds of MIT, the D8 welds two conventional aircraft bodies side by side, a so-called "double bubble" configuration, and mounts three turbofan jet engines on the tail. Able to seat 180, the D8 doesn't look that much different from planes flying today, but composite materials make it lighter, and the turbofan engines provide more thrust, but use 30% less fuel. Designers strayed from dreams of "Star Trek" (you'd think that was heresy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and stuck with the practical, such as increasing the bypass ratio--air flow around the engines--by keeping diameter of the engine small and instead lessening the diameter of the jet exhaust. <em>Photo: NASA/MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences</em>
This may appear to be an ordinary jet, but check out those wings. Designers at Lockheed Martin felt, rightly, that abandoning current plane design for something entirely new could open up a serious can of worms (do we have to reinvent airport gate design? Runway length?), so they used current models with a few tweaks. Using lightweight materials already in use by the military, ultrahigh-bypass turbofan engines, and incorporating that awesome wing configuration that increases the lift-to-drag ration by 16%, the Box Wing can fly farther, quieter, use less fuel (50% less than current jets), and still fit airport gates. It could be in use as soon as 2025. <em>Photo: Nick Kaloterakis</em>
It's that much closer to Wonder Woman's invisible jet. While existing only in computer models (it doesn't have official name yet, even), the lattice construction of Airbus's concept jet is an example of biomimicry, where designs Mother Nature perfected over billions of years are scaled up and used in artificial mechanisms. In this case, the structure of bird bones is incorporated in the plane's fuselage, with the gaps filled by high-strength plastics. This idea keeps the exactly same shape of today's planes, but renders them far lighter and more fuel-efficient. Airbus imagines using 3-D printing technology to integrate electrical systems directly into the structure of the jet (no wires) and brain-like artificial intelligence to care for passengers. <em>Photo: Airbus</em>
Follow Dane Steele Green on Twitter: www.twitter.com/steeletravel