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Futurist Predicts Electric Planes Will One Day Dominate Sky

By Max Trescott

Future visor
In the future, an image of the outside world projected onto the inside of a flip-down visor may help pilots see the world around them, even when flying in the clouds.

Closer to Reality: Electric Cessna 172 to fly next year

November 15, 2010 — “Twenty years from now, it’s going to be mostly an all-electric world,” including airplanes, said futurist and private pilot John Petersen at last week’s AOPA Aviation Summit in Long Beach, California. Petersen, who was recently hired by NASA to provide a future vision of aviation, shared his insights at a keynote address streamed live on the Internet.

He cited numerous “early signals” that electric power plants are coming to aircraft, stating, “The Yuneec is an electric plane that you’re going to be able to buy and fly next year.” Petersen also noted that George Bye and Cessna are working on an electric 172 that’s going to fly in 2011, and the Solar Impulse is being readied for a non-stop, around-the-world flight. Even Boeing has an advanced design team developing a conceptual model for hybrid electric airliners.

The defining issue is batteries, Petersen said. Thanks to the automotive industry, “There’s been a doubling of energy density in the last 10 years in the development of batteries.” New technologies will let you charge a car’s battery for five minutes and will then go 500 miles. New ceramic batteries weigh 300 pounds compared to 3,000 pounds for lead acid batteries and these will find their way into airplanes, he predicted.

Before painting possibilities for the future, Petersen talked of the past. He first described punctuated equilibrium, a process used by evolutionary biologists to describe how the leisurely pace of change is often punctuated with rapid bursts of change. Major events, such as the introduction of Homo sapiens, and then agriculture, cities, and moveable type each have “about 8 to 10 times the technological advantage” of earlier innovations, he said.

“The time between major events is shortening. Events originally separated by billions and then millions of years will now be as few as 10 years apart,” Petersen said. When plotted on a time scale, the interval between events is decreasing at an exponential rate, meaning major events will occur even faster in the future. “If you look out just to 2030, 150 times the technological change of the last century is going to show up.”

Computational power is exploding. “Already Ford is starting to initiate a verbal interface with your car. The ways that you communicate with systems in a car will move themselves into aviation,” Petersen said. He envisions that electronics will provide a virtual copilot that “essentially knows everything and can probably fly the airplane better than you can.”

Pilots may eventually view the outside world as an image projected onto the inside of a flip-down visor, letting them see the world around them even when they’re flying in clouds or haze. By 2020, airplanes are going to be more intelligent, easier to fly, and cheaper to fly. As Petersen concludes, “It’s going to be quite a different world.”

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