Aerospace technology is a rapidly expanding industry. With the advent of commercial spacecraft including commercial satellites and suborbital flight, aerospace engineering is on a trajectory for expansive positive growth.
Innovations in aerospace technology are being developed every day, and staying on top of these changes is vital for anyone interested in investing or working in the field.
A Brief Introduction To Aerospace Technology
Aerospace technology broadly encompasses any machine that flies. Whether the flight stays within Earth’s atmosphere or leaves Earth’s field of gravity for suborbital, orbital, or even deep space flights, all of the craft and the systems that power, control, and drive them are products of aerospace engineering.
This technology is all called aerospace technology. Careers in the field range from physical engineering, chemical engineering, software engineering, manufacturing, prototyping, testing, and much more.
Demand for aerospace technology increases each year, and it is important to track and follow the trends in this fast-paced, competitive industry to see what’s coming next.
General Economic Trends
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the aerospace industry– particularly the commercial aircraft and airline travel aspects of the industry– faced two of their worst years and many of their greatest challenges ever. However, as pandemic restrictions have been largely lifted, 2022 and beyond look to be great years for this sector’s recovery.
The pandemic itself is actually a driver of some of the innovations that aircraft manufacturers are seeing demand for, as interference with the global supply chain has led to increased demand for to-order part manufacturing.
Social distancing and concerns over prolonged air sharing have also led to new ideas for airplane interior design and systems controls. We can expect to see pandemic-driven designs for years to come, as people are less comfortable with certain aspects of air travel than they have been in the past.
We will also see an increase in demands for sustainability, as climate change has begun to play a major role in peoples’ travel plans. Airplane manufacturers and airlines are preparing for a hotter future, and more than 300 airlines, tourism boards, and travel companies signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Change in Tourism.
The goal of greater sustainability means that we will be seeing more new aerospace technology focused on reducing emissions, using newer, smarter materials, and having more efficient supply chain management to create better, greener technologies.
With all that in mind, here are some of the major aerospace trends that we can expect to see in 2022 and beyond. These emerging aerospace technologies will fuel further developments in this already rapidly-developing industry.
Zero-Emission Aircraft and Propulsion Innovations
One of the biggest challenges facing the aerospace industry is how devastating airplane emissions are to the environment. Climate change is a hurdle that all industries must address going forward, and the aerospace industry is focusing a great deal of its research and development resources on reducing these emissions.
One industry leader is Airbus, which recently revealed three concepts for the world’s first zero-emission hydrogen commercial aircraft that could see service by 2035. These three concepts rely on hydrogen as their primary fuel, an option which holds exceptional promise as a clean aviation fuel.
The three concepts also represent changes in physical airplane configuration that will help reduce the amount of fuel needed as well.
Another fuel option that is being researched by numerous aerospace companies is the conversion of carbon dioxide into sustainable aviation fuel or SAF. SAF is an alternative to jet fuel that uses a non-petroleum base and offers lower greenhouse gas emissions than standard jet fuel.
In addition to hydrogen, vegetable oil-based fuels and carbon dioxide-based fuels are gaining research traction. Companies that can offer an alternative fuel supply are in hot demand and are receiving serious investment from airlines and the air transport industry.
Propulsion advances, in general, are being explored by numerous companies. The aerospace industry is working to enhance the efficiency of combustion engines, while also exploring electric and hybrid propulsion systems.
In the past, 3d printing, more professionally known as additive manufacturing, hasn’t been of much use to the aerospace industry outside of rapid prototyping. This is because metal additive manufacturing hasn’t been able to produce parts that are lightweight enough or structurally sound enough for the rigorous safety requirements of the aerospace industry.
However, new alloys have been developed that have allowed additive manufacturing to meet these stringent requirements, and aerospace engineers are starting to realize that additive manufacturing offers more to the aerospace industry than lighter parts: they can also consolidate parts.
By consolidating parts, engineers will cut assembly costs and time. These fewer, lighter parts will also simplify maintenance and save on fuel.
The ability to produce parts on-demand will also make the supply chain more efficient. However, for this trend to really take off, engineers who are certified and have the high level of expertise to properly design and print these parts must be found.
This is difficult, and right now the demand for these engineers outstrips the supply of qualified people.
Designing parts for additive manufacturing is not easy; it’s not like throwing together a fun project in at-home CAD software. The printing process must be designed in a way to avoid deformation and stress and to reduce the number of supports generated during the print.
If the process isn’t properly optimized, it will lead to a significant waste of both time and money. Therefore, the printing process must be simulated, creating another engineering subfield with high demand in the aerospace engineering and technology industry.
Aircraft and spacecraft both undergo enormous pressures during their use life, and rigorous safety concerns mean that maintenance is a constant concern. Manually inspecting and diagnosing each system and piece of equipment requires an incredible amount of time and precision, so one innovation that many aerospace companies are leaning towards is using the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to automate parts of the maintenance process.
IoT is being widely adopted by aircraft maintenance and repair companies for predictive maintenance of aircraft parts and equipment. Data from all sorts of tiny sensors attached to various parts of an aircraft can be analyzed to identify fragile or damaged components before they break.
This data can be sent to technicians for preventative maintenance, or to crews on the ground so that they can order and prepare new parts before they are needed.
Integrating IoT in aviation helps to defuse complex and potentially dangerous situations by adopting new trends like embedded sensors in engines, device monitors, data storage, and information technology advances. It is transforming day-to-day tasks in aviation ranging from assembly and manufacture to maintenance and safety.
IoT is also combined with AI for device integration and data management. Adopting IoT solutions requires the support of hundreds of touchpoints and sensors, and the development of notifications, alerts, and customized application development. AI is used to help filter and process this data so that technicians and engineers can quickly access the information they need for better maintenance and safety procedures.
Autonomous Flight Systems, Communication, and Artificial Intelligence
Maintenance isn’t the only area where AI is relevant. Systems automation is on the rise within aerospace engineering, in nearly every aspect of flight– and much of this is assisted by AI. One major example of this is craft-to-tower communication during landing.
Software is handling ever-greater percentages of the jobs done on an aircraft, and improvements to the communication process during landing is one process that AI-driven software is improving. Currently, planes approaching an airport do so in a stair-step process with the pilot reporting to the tower at set intervals.
But when you remove the human element and let the computers communicate with each other, the approach can be continuous because you can bypass the delay in communication that comes with humans checking– the computers can simply do it much faster. And a continuous approach leads to a smoother descent, which saves time and fuel and improves safety.
AI can handle far more complex problems than humans and can analyze thousands of outcomes almost instantly, compared to how long the human brain takes to process information. While there will always be a need for humans in the different processes of aerospace technology, AI can make communication much faster and data much easier to process.
Many groups within the aerospace industry have embraced AI as a cutting-edge tool to improve their industrial processes. As an example, researchers at the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) are using machine learning, AI, and autonomous systems to exponentially increase the speed of materials discovery and lower the cost of technology.
They can use their valuable manpower in other places that require creativity and higher technical skill while the machines rapidly process information.
Improved Data Handling
Aircraft produce millions of data points, and all that data has to be dealt with somehow. What does the aerospace industry do with it, and what can they use it for?
How does it get sifted in a way that will make it useful? How will it be streamlined and delivered to allow for effective decision-making? This volume of data is incredible, but it can only be useful if it’s analyzed properly.
To this end, the aerospace industry is investing heavily in “smart data” programs, using AI and machine learning to manage this data.
There are many applications for smart data management. Some of these include engine health monitoring, rotor blade maintenance, avionics, and electrical systems maintenance, hydraulics systems overhaul, corrosion controls, and managing inspection schedules for the fleet on the ground and during flight.
The biggest challenge seems to be understanding how to deal with data generated by multiple aircraft. Many aerospace companies are turning to engineering firms outside of their field to contract out the back-end development to companies that have expertise in creating visualization tools, which makes it much easier to understand what this bulk data means.
Sometimes what’s old is new, as is the case with supersonic flights. The supersonic commercial flight was last available in 2001, and the Concorde– the last remaining operational supersonic jet line– was officially retired in 2003. But United Airlines has announced plans to buy 15 new supersonic airliners and “return supersonic speeds to aviation” in the year 2029.
UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles, have already entered the public consciousness. It’s hard today to find somebody who’s never heard of a drone– but what drones have the capability to do is rapidly increasing.
Various militaries, including the US military, have already invested heavily into the offensive capabilities of unmanned flight, as have various space agencies with their interest in probes and satellites. But drone technology is becoming increasingly civilian, with increasing interest in urban air mobility (UAM) vehicles.
There are several principles behind UAM. The first, which requires much further development before it becomes a reality, is essentially unmanned commuter air– a series of autonomous aircraft flying between major airports and regional airports as essentially a shuttle service.
This would require a great deal of work to make it a reality, as well as require a great deal of public trust– right now, it would be very difficult to convince people to get on a plane with no pilot! But this attitude may be softened by the other principle of UAM– the urban delivery drone.
Delivery drones were first tested by Amazon in 2016, and while the project has yet to launch at its full scale, autonomous drones promise to revolutionize parcel, grocery, and other types of delivery. Vehicle development for urban delivery entails not only advances in navigation but in propulsion and fueling as well, due to the need to keep both emissions and noise levels low.
With all of these innovations and an industry-wide growth mindset, the aerospace industry is constantly expanding. These new technologies will need laboratory space to develop, prototype, test, and manufacture.
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