In historic terms, the aerospace industry is young. After all, it’s little more than a hundred years since the Wright Brothers first took to the air. But in that time, ‘flying machines’ have changed enormously, driven by innovation, and that looks set to continue as new developments, like those below, appear on the industry’s radar.
Composite materials. Not so long ago, all aeroplanes were made of metal, but now, following in the barely perceptible wake of military stealth aircraft, composite materials are increasingly being incorporated into commercial planes. Light, strong and tough, composites also have the additional advantage of being fast and easy to manufacture into a wide range of component shapes, using new processes, such as selective laser melting (SLM), which literally melts powders, layer by layer, into complex parts.
The privatisation of space. Until recently, space was the preserve only of governments, but now private companies, such as Virgin Galactic, are seeing the potential of space flight in the not too distant future.
Paints that say ‘Ouch’. Tiny cracks and flaws in aircraft aren’t easy to spot even by detailed examination, but what if the plane itself could show you where it had been hit, scratched, bumped or was showing signs of fatigue? Well it can, if it’s been coated with aviation paints that have been mixed with microcapsules containing a coloured dye. Now, when a plane suffers any damage, the capsules break, leaving a coloured patch at the ‘scene of the crime’. A fast, simple and cost-effective safety method.
Changing plane configurations. We are all used to the standard shape of modern planes with long wings coming off the fuselage, but things don’t have to stay that way in future. Some aviation designers are looking at alternatives, such as ‘pierced wings’ that allow the plane to pass through the air like a catamaran going through water.
Better propulsion systems. How aircraft are powered has been an area of evolutionary progress for the last few decades, as manufacturers try to improve not just the economics of flight through more efficient engines, but also to diminish their environmental impact. This is leading to cleaner and quieter engines, or low cost small turbine engines that could transform small aircraft design over the next 20 years.
One particularly revolutionary development may be the wider introduction of electric engines that use fuel cell technology, which would further help prevent some of the concerns surrounding pollution from jet engines.
In tandem with that, there are likely to be improvements in aviation fuels derived from more natural sources, such as soya oil, as well as the development of synthetic replacements.
‘Feel in control’ flight. At a more esoteric level, there is also the prospect of remotely piloted unmanned planes controlled by neuro-feedback that allows ground-based ‘fliers’ to ‘feel’ they are up in the aircraft as they fly it.
All of this means that aerospace jobs in the UK are likely to become ever more diverse and even more exciting as engineers create new flying machines able to fly ever further, higher and faster.