Right at the start of “The Great Electric Airplane Race,” a thought-provoking NOVA documentary that aired on PBS at the end of May, correspondent Miles O’Brien admits that aircraft are “the high-hanging fruit” in decarbonization. Consider this: the batteries needed to power a long-haul widebody flight would add more than million pounds to the aircraft.
Like the fossil-fuel industry, aviation is following the path of maximum inertia. But in aviation as in energy, disruptive startups are the wagging tail starting to shake the dog. “This is the third revolution of aviation,” one entrepreneur told NOVA. First came powered flight, then jets. Now electric propulsion has engineers, investors, and air-traffic controllers rethinking the future of flying.
With cleaner, cheaper, more convenient options coming, we may never fly the same way again. So is the future of aviation a lot less flying—or a lot more of it? Trends are heading both ways at once.
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The Future of Flying Is Less of It
1. Lockdowns showed that most business travel is unnecessary. Zooming to a conference no longer needs to include a trip to the airport. And it’s not just flying for work: even before the pandemic, some research found people willing to forego up to half their leisure flights. Knowledge workers are increasingly aware of the shockingly high cost to the climate—and the conscience—that comes with conference travel, and Nature found that many now prefer virtual meetings, which can cut emissions by more than a factor of 60.
2. Carbon offsets aren’t working as intended—but flight shaming is. An investigation by The Guardian recently accused major airlines of selling what amount to bogus carbon offsets. And, as Anthropocene has reported, the airline industry has a superemitter problem. According to the European Mobility Atlas 2021, “the top 10 percent of the global income spectrum uses 75 percent of air-transport energy.” Critics such as Bill McKibben call them the “climate-insane.”
3. Political pressure is convincing some lawmakers to just say no. France passed a wide-ranging environmental law in May that bans commercial flights on some short routes where trains offer a quick alternative. That and other provisions in the law have sparked public debate, The New York Times reports. But if it sticks, other rail-intensive countries might follow suit.
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The Future of Flying Is A Lot More of It
At the same time as people seem increasingly inclined to forego jet flights, new kinds of local and regional aircraft—some autonomous, a few lighter than air, and most powered by clean electricity—are speeding down the runway.
1. Entrepreneurs are trying to make it easy to catch a lift, on drone-style electric heliplanes. According to NOVA, “at least 200 startups across the globe [are] racing to fill the skies with electric vehicles,” and a surprising number are already putting people into working prototypes.
The leader seems to be California-based Joby Aviation, which claims to be on track to obtain FAA approval in 2023 to start commercial passenger service with its all-electric, four-passenger heliplane (pictured) for flights of up to 150 miles at 200 mph. Because six tilting propellers enable the plane to lift off and land vertically but then face forward for cruising, the aim is to displace Lyft, not Lufthansa. “We want to be comparable in cost to the price of a taxi, at launch,” the CEO told NOVA.
2. NASA is aiming at zero-emission intercity travel with its first piloted experimental-aircraft program in more than 20 years. The agency told NOVA that it’s on track to get the all-electric X-57 Maxwell aircraft flying this year. A dozen small props on the wings boost lift for take-off, then shut down and fold back for a far more efficient cruise phase.
3. The infrastructure required to jumpstart point-to-point aviation already exists. The hub-and-spoke system that now dominates aviation forces us, as one wag put it, to fly from where we aren’t to where we don’t want to be. Major airports aren’t going away. But hundreds of millions of people live much closer to an underused civil airport or airstrip, thousands of which already dot the U.S., Europe, and other nations. Writing in The Conversation, Australian researchers argue that quiet, climate-friendly “electric aircraft could significantly disrupt short-haul air transport within the next decade,” pulling people off congested highways and into the wide-open skies.
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What to Keep an Eye on
1. FAA approval of NASA’s X-57 and Joby’s electric fly-share plane for passenger service would be a small step for aeronautics, a giant leap for scalable, sustainable aviation. In June, Joby touted plans to start building hundreds of the aircraft every year starting in 2024.
2. Autonomous passenger flights from “vertiports.” The Chinese company EHang recently started putting passengers onto self-flying drones for short sightseeing flights in Zhuhai, China. It says it is now running trials of its four-passenger drones in 42 cities in 8 countries and is refining plans to build eye-catching vertiports—some of them tree-like platforms and others that float on lakes. At the end of May, EHang unveiled a two-passenger, intercity model.
3. FAA’s progress in reinventing air traffic control. As O’Brien notes, both autonomous passenger aircraft and skies filled with low-flying air taxis will break the century-old approach to air traffic control. He talked with FAA researchers who are working on “algorithms that will allow air traffic control to be digital, more automated and distributed.” But as with the roll-out of self-driving cars, crashes are inevitable, so societies will have to decide how many is too many.
4. Low-carbon liquid fuels, hydrogen-powered planes, and next-gen blimps. While the airlines focus on blending relatively small amounts of carbon-neutral fuels made from palm oil, food scraps, or even captured CO2 into jet fuel A, others are pursuing more ambitious alternatives. As O’Brien reports, H2FLY is testing planes that use onboard fuel cells to make electricity from hydrogen. The German company is working to get an air taxi flying by 2025 and to have a 40-seat, 1000-mile plane aloft by 2030.
Meanwhile, blimps may be making a comeback. According to The Guardian, the UK-based Hybrid Air Vehicles is in talks with airlines about launching commercial service in 2025. By attaching battery-powered directional fans to an aerofoil-shaped body filled with helium, the company claims it can cut the carbon footprint of short-haul flights by 90%. Helium is a non-renewable natural resource, however, so this design does not scale well.