Plane design has remained largely the same since the first commercial planes that took flight over a century ago. The technology behind how planes fly has improved, and the systems controlling, governing, and regulating flights are more sophisticated than ever.
As these systems become more advanced, plane design will change, becoming faster, more comfortable, and safer. This all starts with the design.
Most planes today are made of aluminium, as a strong yet lightweight material.
Some companies are attempting to bring back supersonic flight, with planes made from carbon fibre. Lighter than aluminium, it can be treated to withstand temperatures of up to 200 degrees Celsius, which is vital for planes moving faster than the speed of sound. As planes are made of stronger materials, they’ll need less maintenance due to less wear and tear on the body. This will save the industry money, but may mean that aircraft engineers need to retrain to work with new materials and composites.
New technology will revolutionise planes, eventually leading to fully autonomous planes. The main reason for this is to save money on pilot wages. There is also currently a shortage of airline pilots, meaning that many airlines are looking to remove the problem entirely. The process is already under way, this some airlines looking to lower the number of pilots on their planes from two to one. AI systems can handle basic checks and navigation, leaving the pilot free to focus on flying the plane.
While some claim the technology will never extend to full autonomous planes due to the risk of cyber-crime, others say that it’s only a matter of time until we see pilotless planes becoming a reality.
Planes today currently run on jet fuel made from kerosene. As the world becomes more concerned with pollution, and switches to more eco-friendly fuels, planes will follow suit and switch to hybrid of fully electric energy sources.
Smaller electric engines may open up the possibility of distributed propulsion, increasing efficiency and lowering noise. This could see a move away from the traditional two wing design, with small fins and engines similar to drones. Generating enough thrust and maintaining lift will always be pillars of plane design, so it could be that designs are always centred around these two principles. The fuel the plane uses does however free up possibilities for new internal systems, which may further translate to changes on the plane body.
While there are plenty of concept designers and mechanical design engineers working in designing the next generation of planes, there are also algorithms working hard to design planes that humans could never dream of. The software can be given a number of constraints, such as weight, strength, costs, and then will design dozens of possible configurations, in strange shapes that human designers would struggle to conceive.
Additive manufacturing can allow for maximum efficiency with minimal waste, not a single piece is added that is not needed. A reduction in weight is of vital importance, as every extra pound reduces how far the fuel can go. The Airbus 320 actually has new lightweight partitions between cabins that was designed by an AI. These partitions have skeletal designs made of rods at crossing angles that a human might never have thought of. The humans come in to pick the best designs out of what the algorithm churns out, as not all designs are equally as viable.
These are just some of the changes in plane design we can expect to see over the coming years.