THE FUTURE IS NOT OURS TO SEE
Innovators know that the future is not theirs to see. The future needs expansion of the vistas of knowledge. That is what they do, continuously. They explore virgin territory that lies currently outside the bounds of knowledge. They dare the untried. Thus they become pioneers.
What further developments await aviation?
Aircraft will become sleeker and lighter thanks to special adhesives. They make it possible to bond material— aluminium, plastic foam, carved and evened out and covered with fibre glass—better. These materials make the aircraft stronger and lighter. Moreover, they give scope for new shapes to aircraft, shapes that reduce resistance of air by directing the airflow round the plane and not into it. That leads to better speed, lesser fuel consumption. Work is on to harness new material to make the engine lighter and more fuel-efficient. New energy sources—liquid hydrogen, electric power, solar energy and even atomic power—are being tried out.
How will these changes benefit us?
Does it not cheer us to note that some day, in the future, we may be flying our own aircraft! That is no tall story. Look at cars on Indian roads? Did anybody imagine, twenty years back, that the common Indian could own a car? Yet, now, the car is within the reach of the middle class. In the developed nations, smaller planes are owned and used extensively, by citizens. Today is their day. Tomorrow will be ours.
All those who drive through the congested roads of major cities share one dream. If only cars could take to flight, whenever there is a terrific traffic jam! Boeing is working on just this dream vehicle called the electric flivver. It is an airplane-cum-car that takes off easily when it finds itself stuck in’the traffic. Once it gets beyond the stretch of the road that is jammed, it returns to the roads and runs like any normal car. Its gets lift with the help of rotors, fixed on top (very much like the helicopter).
This idea is being extended to develop aircraft that can fly faster than sound and can take off from anywhere. Named, The Transonic Business Jet, this plane will have variable sweep wings. These wings, as their name indicates, will sweep forward and backward. They will adjust to the centre of the lift of the aircraft when it flies faster than the speed of sound. While cruising, the wings will be reset at right angles to the fuselage. The plane will be fuelled by liquid hydrogen. Its maximum speed will be about 2,600 kmph.
Ever seen a flying saucer? We are not talking of the saucer that flies in space after we aim it at someone who annoys us. Flying saucers are what aliens, out there in space, use to visit our earth. Or so say those who believe there are intelligent life forms out there, in distant galaxies. It is this shape that Boeing finds ideal to serve city commuters. Powered by heavy flywheels that spin in opposite direction, it can take off and land vertically, operate from parking lots in major cities.
Boeing is also working on an amphibious plane. One that can operate from land and water!
These reports cheer us. Then comes another question. Will air travel become faster? Faster than the Concorde that covers the London-New York route in about three hours? The answer is YES! Research is on to fly aircraft at speeds ranging from 4,800 to 12,800 kmph. These aircraft shall fly at altitudes 30,000 m to 39,000 m, where the earth’s gravity is only five-sixth of that on the ground. The aircraft will use jet fuel at speeds up to 5,760 kmph. Then, the turbo engines will shut down, and jet engines, using liquid petroleum, will take over.
In July 2002, Boeing designed a super-efficient aircraft that looks like a giant bat. It has no fuselage or tail, just a huge wing, with a belly that has space to accommodate 480 passengers. The aircraft is so designed that its structure provides the lift. So it will take 32% less fuel and bring the cost of air transport down.
Lockheed has plans to produce a cargo aircraft. It will carry 1,80,000 kg of cargo non-stop to any place on the earth, flying at a speed of 800 kmph. It can fly for weeks, as it will be powered by nuclear energy.
For transport of cargo, another unusual idea is being explored. It is an aircraft with thick wings that shall hold the cargo. The flat bottom of the wing will stay a few feet above water. The craft will fly low, carrying 1,98,000 kg of freight, at a speed of about 480 kmph.
On 30 July 2002, Australian scientists launched a hypersonic ‘scramjet’. It has a revolutionary new engine. The oxygen in the air enters the engine and ignites hydrogen fuel. The aircraft, it is claimed, can fly at speeds of over Mach 8.
These changes will certainly improve civilian transport. They will be suitably adjusted to serve military purposes too.
At the same time, aircraft specially designed for defence purposes are in the pipeline. Fighters will carry powerful bombs and guided missiles more easily. Rockwell International launched a bomber, controlled by the pilot on the ground. The idea is catching on. An army general noted, "In the 21st century, we will definitely rely more on pilotless
aircraft to place people out of harm’s way".
Can laser beams propel an aircraft? Scientists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology experimented with laser-powered paper airplane. They are now getting ready to fly tiny pilotless planes. Ultimately they plan to propel planes at several times the speed of sound at high altitudes, where the air is too thin for jet engines to operate. Laser beams from satellites or high-altitude balloons will propel the aircraft.
Laser produces high intensity coherent light waves. Waves remind us of radars that detect aircraft in flight. Can an aircraft evade detection by radar? It can, once we know how the radar works. Radar sends out radio pulses into the flying object. The waves are reflected back to the radar station. The blip on the screen helps identify the aircraft.
Scientists took note of this fact. Could they distort the reflected radio pulses and thus make it hard for radars to detect the flying object? Then came an idea. An object that has only curves, no flat surface, scatters the waves and disperses them in all directions. The scientists exploited this scientific principle. However, this idea gave very limited success. Then came the idea to make all the surfaces of an aircraft as plane as possible, with no surface at an angle that would reflect the waves back to radar. They also developed special paints for the aircraft. These paints absorb some of the radar waves. The end product is the Stealth aircraft.
High altitude surveillance is vital for national defence and for earth study. Lockheeds plans a High Altitude Powered Platform. It will carry cameras and instruments to watch troop movements or identify military installations or estimate crop growth or warn about locusts or shifting weather patterns. It will be powered by solar energy.
In July 2001, Helios, a solar powered plane that shall fly for months on end, maintaining a height of 30,000 m, was tested at Hawai (Fig. 14.1). "It is powered by its
shadow", John Hicks, the programme’s manager, joked. Made of carbon fibre, it weighs about 800 kg. It undertakes unmanned flights. It is controlled from the ground. It flies at a very high altitude, far above the clouds. So all day long, it gets sunlight that powers its flight.
Remember Burt Rutan who designed the Voyager? In December 1986, Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeagar flew the aircraft, round the globe, non-stop and created history. Now (in January 2005), Steve Fossett—the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo in a balloon—is all set to perform a similar feat. He will be flying the aircraft GlobeFlyer—solo— designed by Burt. The flight is expected to be completed in 70 hours.
These are developments that we know of. But quietly, silently, secretly (driven by commercial or defence interest), many more advanced designs are taking shape.
What does aviation hold for man, in the days to come? The future is not ours to see. But we have a hunch. One based on reason and logic. Aircraft manufacturers are taking advantage of latest technologies. This is a continuous process. So we can confidently predict the future, say that the aircraft of tomorrow will be faster, more comfortable and sleeker than the ones around now.
On that hopeful note, we end the Great Aviation Story.