Aviation has always been an industry greatly affected by technology, since without it, there would be no industry at all. Numerous technological advancements and shifts have occurred over the years with remarkable regularity, too. From concerns over fuel efficiency and airline profitability to increased safety measures and attempts to improve comfort, change — much of it fueled by tech — has been commonplace.
As technology continues to evolve and expand into every corner of contemporary life, change is once again afoot. Here are three ways tech has the aviation industry poised and primed for change from the influence of big data to the possibility and necessity of sustainability.
The Evolving Airport
One way in which tech is changing the world we live in is in the realm of scalability. Businesses of all types and sizes are expected to adjust to new developments at the drop of a hat, and, as such, can greatly benefit from tech that’s scalable. Natural shifts due to client load, season, growth, and the like are commonplace, and technology can aid in helping businesses negotiate those shifts more successfully.
Today’s airports are an example of that need for a nimble and rapid scalability. Everything from high-tech, fabric buildings* that allow for quicker installation of more sustainable hangars to pop up with relative ease, to data gathering and analytics that can be easily scaled to accommodate times of heavier or lighter traffic, is on the table, and the airports that make use of it the best are more likely to enjoy better profit margins than those that do not.
The Race for Sustainability
The aviation industry produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases, most notably: CO2 and NOx. What’s worse is the vast majority of these gases are emitted at high altitudes, which makes them even more dangerous. Even as climate change concerns are reaching the point of alarm, aircraft emissions are still projected to triple by the 2050. Why? Demand is expected to continue to increase around the world unless airline growth is constrained and strong carbon pricing mechanisms are put in place. Unfortunately, the airline industry continues to fight carbon pricing mechanisms, and the EPA’s tendency to drag its feet about setting any meaningful emissions-reducing standards is still its dominant MO.
Technology — if used well — can help, as just having better data has shown numerous ways to improve fuel efficiency. Other tech improvements are being developed as well. NASA is experimenting with new wings to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, and they’ve also created a non-stick coating that keeps bugs from sticking to wings’ leading edges — a surprising source of drag. However, without regulation and government intervention that also curbs or limits demand while requiring the industry to make needed changes, aviation will probably continue to wreak havoc on a warming planet.
Aviation Biofuels & Solar Flight
Biofuels have a long and controversial history, but they could be one powerful and easy way for the aviation industry to cut its CO2 emissions. The good news is that several airlines are heavily engaged in advancing sustainable biofuels. One of the most promising of these biofuels is from the use of halophytes, which can grow in salty waters and use aquaculture waste (a huge problem in itself) as fertilizer. This potential solution, which is being tested in a pilot project right now, came from the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium, which includes Boeing, Etihad Airways, Masdar Institute, and Honeywell’s UOP. One interesting thing about biofuel aviation fuel is that it actually burns cleaner than oil from tar sands or shale formations — something that would make airlines even happier.
Aside from halophyte biofuels, there’s potential with other advanced biofuels, such as algae biofuel and camelina biofuel, and there are even waste-based biofuels. Some commercial flights have already used some of these options. And then there is always the long-term potential of solar-powered flight. Whatever path ends up being most competitive, we can be sure of one thing, the aviation industry will keep exploring new tech and evolving.
*This article was kindly sponsored by Legacy Building Solutions.