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What Will Aviation Look Like in The Next 10 Years?

Quantum computers could optimize flight paths and routes with their ability to process complex optimization problems. 

4 mins read
Greener airplane concepts [Airbus]

The future is not something we enter.  The future is something we create. ~ Leonard Sweet

The General Direction

Recently, I was intrigued by a question raised by a colleague in a blog of the airport community: “what will airports look like in the next 5 years?”.  I am certain he did not mean the outward appearance as airports would look the same in 5 years.  To me the question should rather be “what aviation will look like in the short and perhaps medium term of the future”. since air transport; airports and air navigation services, as well as the manufacturing sector are interconnected in an evolving systematic process and the change in one would affect the rest of the system.

Over the past two decades, the world of civil aviation has been in a direction of exponential growth and competition will continue as the demand for air transport is, spurring increased competition, new routes, and the introduction of more efficient aircraft.

Arguably, at the apex of advancement would be the green equation where the growing trend is to build more fuel-efficient aircraft and achieve exponential utilization of alternative fuels such as hydrogen and bio fuels.  This will go lockstep with forging ahead with further regulatory measures and the advancement of technology.  In particular, regulators are likely to impose tighter restrictions on both engine emissions and noise that would urge manufacturers to look for more efficient aircraft models. A corollary to this trend would be an increased focus on developing electric propulsion and the use of hybrid technology which at present is in the nascent stage. It may take beyond 10 years to develop and implement these technologies for long haul flights, although drones and small planes have shown the distinct possibility of use in the medium term. 

There is a growing trend in the aviation community where proponents of autonomous flight are predicting its advent although it is still a distant goal. Although autonomous flights may not attain fruition in commercial aviation for quite some time there could be possibilities of introducing artificial intelligence and quantum computing in various stages of flight. In this context, regulators would be well advised to have preliminary feasibility studies on adapting existing treaties and legislative measures to a non-human driven air transport system.  

On the manufacturing side, the focus would continue to be on the use of light weight and durable materials such as carbon composites with a view to making environmentally friendly aircraft and equipment that improve efficiency. This would also apply to supersonic air transport which has captured the interest of the manufacturing and air transport industries.

Global air mobility and urban air mobility, which are already goals of the aviation community, will take an important place in the development of the aviation system. In the case of small urban mobile craft, there will be increased interest in the use of small electric aircraft for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) on short intra-city flights.

There will be a combination of the use of data analytics in enhancing the passenger experience as well as in the application in such areas as operations and maintenance, which would span both the air transport and airport industries. A particular advancement to look for would be the use of quantum computing to enhance developments in cabin designs, better entertainment systems, and increased connectivity. This could include more comfortable seating, improved in-flight entertainment, and better Wi-Fi connectivity.

Quantum Computing

The history of technology has gone through two stages already: the analogue stage and the digital stage.  The third stage is the quantum stage where, although in its early stages, quantum computing will bring significant advances in the aviation industry.  Compared to digital computing, quantum computing is an all encompassing cutting-edge computing system that uses quantum mechanics to vastly improve upon the digital computing paradigm. Quantum computers employ what are called quantum bits or qubits, which allows quantum computers to perform certain types of calculations much faster and more efficiently than classical computers.

It must be mentioned that quantum computing is still being developed, and will, in the future, graduate from just being largely theoretical to being practically implementable. Quantum computing faces significant technical challenges, including error correction, stability of qubits, and scalability. As the technology progresses and more practical quantum computers become available, researchers and experts in aviation and aerospace will need to work together to realize potential benefits.

Quantum computers could optimize flight paths and routes with their ability to process complex optimization problems.  This could optimize the ability of airlines and air traffic controllers to develop and determine flight paths and routes. The corollary would be the reduction of fuel consumption, cutting travel times, and minimizing environmental impact. Quantum computing could enhance air traffic management systems by enabling real-time processing of large volumes of data. This could lead to more responsive and adaptive air traffic control systems, reducing congestion and enhancing safety.

Another area in which quantum computers can greatly assist is weather forecasting and prediction of turbulence. The processing power of quantum computers could improve weather forecasting models, enabling more accurate predictions and better preparation for adverse weather conditions, leading to safer and more efficient flight operations. Quantum computing could enhance global navigation systems, such as GPS, by enabling more accurate positioning and timing capabilities. Quantum computing could also protect sensitive aviation data more efficiently than a digital system.

In the area of manufacturing, quantum computing’s computational power could be used to optimize aircraft aerodynamics for improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. This could involve simulating complex fluid dynamics scenarios more accurately than traditional methods allow. Quantum computing could accelerate the development of new materials and chemicals that could lead to more efficient and environmentally friendly aircraft engines.

In the area of aircraft maintenance, and in particular predictive maintenance, quantum computing’s ability to process and analyze large datasets quickly would be a distinct asset. By analyzing sensor data in real-time, it could help identify potential mechanical issues before they lead to failures, reducing downtime and maintenance costs.

Conclusion

Arguably, the future of aviation would lie mostly in quantum computing that would be a useful tool in addressing areas in the general discussion of future trends in this article. A quantum computer can solve a specific problem faster than the most advanced classical supercomputers. This computer system is indeed revolutionary and will infuse speed and efficiency in various fields, including cryptography, optimization, materials science, drug discovery, artificial intelligence, and more. Michio Kaku, an authority on quantum computing, in his latest book Quantum Supremacy discusses the concept of quantum parallelism, where qubits can perform multiple calculations simultaneously due to superposition, and entanglement, which could allow for faster and more efficient computations.

Practical, large-scale quantum computers are still in the experimental stages and challenges remain in building and maintaining stable and error-resistant qubits.    Quantum systems are extremely delicate and prone to interference from their environment, leading to errors in computations.  Researchers are actively involved in developing  quantum hardware and algorithms to unlock the full potential of this new computing paradigm.

The future of aviation has to be viewed simultaneously through the lens of technology and regulation.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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