In the future of air travel, you’ll disembark from your commercial flight without having to wait 30 minutes on the tarmac for the gate-bridge to arrive; it will already be there. You’ll walk through terminals and security checkpoints without having to stop and show a plethora of IDs, boarding passes and itineraries; everything will be stored in your phone and automatically read by security systems you walk through.
You’ll then skip the rental car and instead hop on a shorter, smaller flight to your hotel. Midway through the flight pilots will adjust course because of crowdsourced reports of heavy dust particles on the flight path. You’ll touch down on a small airstrip run by an autonomous flight tower located a few miles from your hotel.
A flying taxi will arrive just as you step off the plane. Your favorite takeout meal and a glass of your preferred white wine will be in the spacious cabin. The taxi will lift off vertically into the air, fly over the city and land on the roof of your hotel; the flight will be so smooth that you won’t spill a drop of your wine.
Here’s how this is all going to work.
“There are a couple of themes we’re looking at for the future of air travel. The first is connectivity, where all the products on an aircraft are starting to be smart products, communicating with the ground-based infrastructure to create efficiencies. Then with artificial intelligence, I think you’re going to see a lot more efficiency and a frictionless journey,” said LeAnn Ridgeway, vice president and general manager of Information Management Solutions at Collins Aerospace.
“The third piece is autonomy. In 10 years, I’m not sure we’ll get all the way to no pilots in a cockpit, but I’d expect to see reduced pilot crews so that you would have some autonomy from the ground for backup and redundancy on some of the aircraft systems from the commercial perspective.”
Biometrics will connect the future of air travel
Biometrics are a way of identifying someone based on physical characteristics such as DNA, fingerprints, facial structure and even how that person walks. Now that smartphones are ditching numeric passwords in favor of biometrics, the devices can be used as a form of official ID.
“Being able to utilize biometrics will allow us to now journey from end to end through an airport without having to produce any documentation at all. No passport, no license, no ticket, no bag tag, all of it would be what they call a single token journey through your smartphone applications,” said Ridgeway.
Biometrics will do more than just speed up the checkout process when flying. They’ll also adjust your journey to match your preferences when you travel.
“You know how you look at something on a website and the next thing you know the advertisement for the same thing's on your Facebook feed? You're going to see that kind of thing with preferences and tailoring to individuals versus a one-size-fits-all experience, which is going to be pretty powerful,” said Ridgeway.
The possibilities for how user preferences can shape the air travel experience are vast. Food allergies, movie preferences, beverage choice are some of the simplest examples that come to mind. Your favorite meal and drink, with the latest episode of your new binge cued up on a seatback display will be waiting for you when you take your seat on the plane.
But biometrics can do more than just make the journey comfortable — they can also make it safer. With biometric connectivity, smartphones can store immunization records as well as data about whether the user has traveled to parts of the world dealing with an outbreak. If someone books a flight to Africa, the systems in their smartphone will know to schedule an appointment for a Yellow Fever immunization, if they haven’t already received it.
This technology isn’t a pie in the sky fantasy. Elements of it are already in place with Collins Self Pass, which integrates with almost every checkpoint in a passenger’s air travel experience. Raytheon Intelligence & Space’s Ray Trace can be used to alert people who have come in contact with someone who has a contagious illness.
For example, if someone tests positive for COVID, Ray Trace could ping all the satellites that the contagious person was located in for the last two weeks. It will then find cellphones of people who were in the vicinity of the contagious person and send them a message that they were in proximity of an anonymous contagious person and should get tested.
Remote air traffic control towers will open flight paths
The air traffic control tower is an integral part of air travel. It directs planes on where and when to land and take off as well as how to reroute course if bad weather or an emergency diverts a plane’s flight. Flight towers at major airports are funded by the FAA.
Airstrips that don’t get enough traffic are deemed cost ineffective by the FAA for a flight tower. Because those smaller airstrips don’t have a tower, most insurance companies covering the planes won’t allow them to land there. Remote air traffic control towers are going to change that.
A remote air traffic control tower replaces traditional flight towers and the people working in them with a series of sensors and cameras. The imagery from those cameras and sensors is fused with information from radars and flight plans. This fusion matches the aircraft seen from the sensors on the ground with the flight plan that's associated with that airplane.
“Now, as a controller, you have all that information available to you. But instead of looking at a tower, you're actually looking at a bunch of computer displays,” said Kip Spurio, a technical director at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.
“The idea is that you can put a bunch of these sensors out there for a lot less money than building a tower and paying for the people to be there. Then you pipe that information to a central location, and as it's being proven out in Europe, you could control multiple airports from one room, and potentially with one person.”
The remote air traffic control tower offers an affordable way to open flight paths for larger airliners to fly to more remote locations. This means that instead of taking three flights and a ferry to a remote island vacation, your small commercial connecting flight will be able to land directly on the island’s landing strip.
Digital towers can also improve the safety for large commercial and small civilian aircraft. If a flight tower needs to be evacuated because of a tornado warning, the remote virtual tower could take over and redirect flights. It can also provide safer air traffic control for smaller hubs that are popular with Cessnas or Beechcraft.
Raytheon Intelligence & Space plans to install its first virtual tower sometime in 2020. The estimated cost will be between $2 and $3 million, as opposed to a traditional flight tower which can cost upward of $100 million.
Weather forecasting and radar are two of the last pieces of the flying car puzzle
Much of the technology to build flying cars already exists. The real challenge lies in managing a sky filled with them.
In order for urban air mobility vehicles and drones to take off from rooftops and perform fast maneuvers around houses and skyscrapers, weather forecasting and radar tools need to become accurate to the street level and track in almost real time. Something as trivial as a strong gust of wind could blow a delivery drone off course and crash it through a high-rise apartment window. A family trip to the lake house might require landing in the middle of nowhere for a few hours to wait out an unexpected thunderstorm.
The question of whether flying cars will be safe gets asked frequently. The question of whether they’ll be enjoyable is less common.
“You don't really want to take a person flying for the first time on a really rough and windy day, it's a bad experience. So how do we forecast micro-weather? And how do we leverage and use it?” said Michael Dubois of Raytheon Intelligence & Space.
“The reality of the commercialism behind all of this is that people aren't going to care if it's nice out or not. They're going to want their stuff. They're going to go where they want to go.”
Dubois is a product manager for Raytheon Intelligence & Space’s Skyler, one of the technologies making small craft, low-altitude flight possible. The radar is capable of tracking weather events that typically go undetected in low altitude. It’s sensitive enough to measure precipitation and differentiate between types of weather based on the shapes of droplets.
Traditional radar works by spinning 360 degrees and scanning the sky as it turns. It spots and updates an objects’ locations with each rotation — which is fine for aircraft flying at 30,000 feet. But 20,000 drones and air taxis flying around the skyscrapers of New York City require more accurate radar. Because Skyler doesn’t use a rotating beam it is able to track objects in real-time. The system is also much smaller and able to be adapted to cellphone towers, creating a blanket of accurate surveillance.
But how will all of this be rolled into a user-friendly package that takes the thinking out of planning a flight? The solution lies in connectivity and crowdsourcing.
“If we can use some of this digital technology now with things like crowdsourcing with applications for aircraft and for pilots, that basically would be like a Waze in the air. The pilots could report issues in flight paths and other pilots could fly around or above to also save fuel and operational efficiencies for the aircraft,” said Ridgeway.