Airborne giants: what will an airplane look like in the future? 3 minutes spent reading

Airborne giants: what will an airplane look like in the future?

Volkmar Held
As a freelance writer, Volkmar Held reports for voestalpine on topics that move people. The content of his stories ranges from archaeometallurgy to future technologies.

Currently about 100,000 airplanes take off for the skies every day. And there’s further growth in sight, with more and more people using airplanes as a means of transport.

Airbus is already expecting 6.7 billion passengers by 2032, compared to 2.9 billion today. Many areas of aerospace, including aircraft construction, are constantly producing new innovations in an effort to keep up with the sustained growth in the aerospace industry. Many of these go unnoticed by passengers, since visually speaking, the airplane with its fuselage and wings have hardly been altered. This could change in the next few years, however. Designers and aerospace engineers are working intensively on new types of aircraft that will make flying more flexible – and thus more efficient.

Experimental airplane based on the Stingray concept

One of these new concepts – the Stingray type of airplane – is based on the fish. The test airplane, with a wingspan of 13 meters, has inflatable wings that make it significantly lighter than conventional planes of the same size. In addition, the profile of the wings can be modified. As a result, the current steering controls for aircraft could be replaced with much simpler technology. It is not yet clear, however, if the experimental airplane will make it into series production.

© Stephen Chang

The modular Transpose concept

The strict separation of cargo and passenger airplanes could also become a thing of the past in the foreseeable future. Up to now, converting an airplane has been time consuming and expensive. Researchers in Silicon Valley may have found a suitable solution for that with the Transpose concept of a modular cabin. The fixed rows of seats in current cabins could be replaced with functional modules that can be swapped out flexibly. An entire cabin’s furnishings could thus be replaced in a few hours.  Should the aircraft be transporting passengers overnight, for example, more sleeping compartments could be installed, and during the day, more seats or even workstations. This concept is still just being studied, but on this basis, a passenger aircraft that takes off in the morning could arrive in the evening as a cargo plane without a great deal of effort. After all, spontaneity and flexibility are popular not only with travelers but also with airlines.

Transport inside the wings

With the “wing-only” aircraft – another idea for how aircraft might look in the future – passengers and cargo would be transported inside the wings. This would mean that aircraft would in the future no longer require a fuselage. With lower weight and a smaller surface, wing-only aircraft would possess a few aerodynamic advantages. Scientists think that this construction could result in fuel savings of up to 30 percent compared to today’s aircraft. And these “flying wings” have yet another advantage: They would be extremely quiet in flight, since the engines could be mounted on top and the noise would be insulated.

New combined concepts

© Andreas Vogler

The Pop.Up system unites the automobile and airplane into a single means of transport. This would prevent us from ever again having to waste time in a traffic jam. Commuters would travel flexibly through urban spaces with passenger capsules that can be combined with both air and ground modules – depending on the whether the agility of a car is needed, or the speed of an airplane.

We will have to wait to see which concepts make the cut and how we will travel by air in the future. It is already clear, however, that the airplane as we now know it will change, and the dream of flying has by no means reached its final destination.

Volkmar Held