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The Future of Aviation

From dirigibles to drone taxis, Keith Bain explores the emerging future of air transport and discovers the sci-fi future of aviation has already landed.
Aviation

The views will be gorgeous – and exhilaratingly expensive. If OceanSky Cruises, a Swedish company, forges ahead with its (already selling) airship adventures, those with sufficiently deep pockets will soon be rekindling a mode of travel dormant for almost a century.

Airships – aka dirigibles – died out, not only because of the horror of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster (when the airship caught fire and crashed), but because they’re slow and were usurped by now ubiquitous jet planes.

OceanSky, however, intends using dirigibles’ slow-travel velocity advantageously – it’s punting sightseeing and exploration rather than a get-there-quick transport solution. One planned expedition is a 36-hour flight over the North Pole at a cost of $200 000 which does not include flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where the voyage begins.

Developed by a UK firm (Hybrid Air Vehicles, or HAV), the hybrid airship (nicknamed ‘the flying buttocks’) was initially built for military surveillance over Afghanistan and first flew in 2012; a nifty redesign has turned it into a swanky pleasure palace with just eight cabins and a glass-bottom floor so passengers can take in the premium views.

That’s if it takes off: OceanSky has been delayed by several failed test flights over the last few years. It had planned a maiden voyage to Antarctica last year, but is now looking to launch in 2024 or 2025.

Still, if plans get off the ground (and the airship stays in the sky), the advantages are many. Since no runway’s required, touchdown in remote places – on land and water – is possible wherever there’s sufficient space.

It’s reckoned that airships produce up to 90 percent fewer emissions than passenger jets; while Airlander 10 is currently powered by four diesel-engine drive propellers, HAV aims to have made it emission-free by 2030.

And whereas the Hindenburg was filled with flammable hydrogen, OceanSky’s Airlander 10 (incidentally, the world’s largest flying vehicle, around the length of a football field) is filled with inert helium. Plus, OceanSky’s founder-CEO, Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, says its ‘bicycle speed’ take offs and landings make it much safer than jumbo jets.

While speed will prevent dirigibles from competing with commercial passenger flights, another race is on to remove carbon from the commercial flight sector entirely. Air New Zealand recently promised to have a zero-emissions aircraft in the sky by 2026 (other airlines are scrambling to make similar claims). And in January, the first (10-minute) test flight of ZeroAvia’s 19-passenger hydrogen-powered plane happened in the UK’s Cotswold region; it’s said to be the largest such plane to have flown, although only one of the hybrid test plane’s engines was powered by hydrogen fuel cells – the other was run on conventional jet fuel.

Still, this puts the world closer to low- or zero-emissions flights; both Embraer and Airbus believe that by 2035 hydrogen-fuelled aircraft will be in service. ZeroAvia envisions a 90-passenger plane with a 1 125-kilometre range, while Universal Hydrogen, a competing US company, has plans to test a 50-seat with a hydrogen fuel-cell system early this year.

Also in the works? An experimental ‘Flying-V’ plane that’s said to be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than jumbo jets, which they could well replace.

Meanwhile, in the race to kickstart the so-called ‘Urban Air Mobility’ sector, drone taxis and flying cars, once relegated to the realm of science-fiction, are undergoing furious testing from Dubai to Paris, Seoul to Stuttgart.

By 2019, the sector had in excess of 70 companies developing flying vehicles, ranging from the single-seater drone-like Jetson ONE (powered by a Tesla battery) to electric aircraft that take off and land vertically, like helicopters or hovercraft, and can also drive on roads.

In May 2021, a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) study reported that the sector may see ‘drone-like flying objects capable of transporting passengers and cargo in dense cities thanks to their ability to land and take-off vertically’ deployed in Europe within three to five years. However, Paris is applying pressure to have its airborne transport system operational in time for next year’s Summer Olympics.

Aviation

Last March, Volocopter, a German industry leader promising to ‘bring air mobility to your life’, conducted its first crewed eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) flight in France; in November, they tested a passenger flight in conventional air traffic – it launched from an airfield outside Paris.

Volocopter, which is competing with companies such as Lilium, Joby Aviation Uber and Airbus to have the first flying taxi certified by regulators, leads with the idea that it will improve cities by bringing emission-free, sustainable and more efficient transport solutions to cities. ‘By offering all-electric flights over cities, we make room on the streets,’ claims its website.

In Singapore, they’ve built a prototype Voloport, the equivalent of a bus terminal, from which the flying machines will be dispatched.

Meanwhile, 2023 will see full-scale testing of an electric flying car showcased recently at CES, the US’s top tech fair in January. The four-seater Aska A5 is able to take off like an eVTOL plane, but can additionally be driven on roads after landing.

Certification for the A5 is expected by 2026, but Aska, which is based in Silicon Valley’s Los Altos, is already taking deposits for its electric flying cars, priced at $789 000. It can fly at 240 km/h for 400 kilometres; on roads, it will reach 112 km/h and will be chargeable at normal EV stations.

Aska isn’t alone. Slovakia’s Klein Vision AirCar has already flown between Slovakia’s Nitra and Bratislava airports. Japan’s SkyDrive Inc. hopes to have its flying car on the market this year.

The regulatory (and logistical) hurdles are daunting, though. Even a single disaster will likely trigger a backlash. While safety’s a key issue, other concerns include increased noise pollution and how wildlife – including urban bird populations – may be impacted. And beyond matters of traffic control, cybersecurity, and emergency handling, there is the rather obvious question of determining where all these airborne vehicles will land within urban settings.

Then again, in the flying-car future realities envisioned by The Jetsons, Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, such problems apparently found solutions.

Those imagined realities are undoubtedly upon us, bringing to fruition Henry Ford’s prediction – in 1940 – that ‘a combination of airplane and motorcar is coming’.
‘Mark my words,’ said Ford. ‘You may smile. But it will come.’

by Keith Bain

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