Getting on a plane is pretty standard no matter where you are in the world. You go through security, board your plane and spend hours in the air, depending on how far you’re traveling. It hasn’t changed much over the last few decades, even though technology continues to advance.
With the airline industry expecting an increase in air traffic by more than six times what it is now, what will boarding a plane look like in the future? We have a clue — and it includes NASA and a super-sonic, zero emissions aircraft.
Hybrid cars, at least in their current incarnation, pair a gasoline engine with an electric, battery-powered one to reduce car emissions and increase fuel efficiency. While it works well on the ground, it hasn’t been adopted yet for aircraft because of the power requirements of getting a passenger airliner off the ground — and keeping it in the air.
NASA might be changing that soon with a new hybrid plane that will function in much the same way as their ground-bound counterparts. These hybrid planes could potentially make flying more fuel-efficient, by up to 30 percent — if they can engineer the right machinery and electrical systems to make these new hybrid planes fly.
These aircraft with be mostly dependent on the battery technology. To provide sufficient power to keep these aircraft aloft, the batteries will need to be able to produce 400-watt-hours of power per kilogram of battery weight. Currently, the kind of lithium-ion batteries in hybrid and electric cars are capable of roughly 300-watt-hours per kilogram, so we’re not too far off from being able to potentially power hybrid or even fully electric aircraft in the not-so-distant future.
A Step Up From Traditional Flight
Current commercial airliners are fast — topping out at about 500 knots, or 575 miles per hour — but they aren’t nearly as fast as they could be. Many airliner manufacturers are working toward both hypersonic and supersonic airliners that could dramatically shorten the amount of time it takes to fly from place to place.
Supersonic aircraft are capable of flying faster than the speed of sound, which is around 767 miles per hour. Boom Supersonic, named for the sonic boom that the aircraft makes when it breaks the sound barrier, is working on a supersonic plane that will have a top speed of 1,451 miles per hour. It will theoretically be able to fly from New York to London in a little more than three hours, a flight that currently takes just over seven hours.
Other companies aren’t happy with just breaking the sound barrier — they want to shatter it entirely and then stomp on the pieces. These hypersonic planes will be capable of traveling more than five times the speed of sound, around 3,800 miles per hour.
Boeing has an experimental plane that can currently travel at hypersonic speeds, the X-51A WaveRider, but it’s not ready for commercial passengers just yet. When it is, though, this hypersonic beauty could make that same trip from New York to London in an hour.
These super planes won’t just be flying faster than traditional airliners — they’ll be flying higher, too. Traditional airliners fly between 30,000 and 35,000 feet above the surface of the earth, while the supersonic and hypersonic planes will need to travel between 90,000 and 100,000 feet up. The thinner atmosphere makes it easier to reach the high speeds.
The new planes also might not have windows — so not fighting over the window seat. Instead, virtual windows and cameras will let you see what’s going on outside the plane. The lack of glass windows will strengthen the plane’s fuselage, making these quick trips possible and safer.
Things Are Looking Up
In the next decade, assuming that battery technology continues to advance, we could be seeing some fantastic updates in how we fly.