If you’ve flown on an airplane anytime recently, at some point you probably sat in seat, bolt upright, uncomfortable and thirsty, as your airplane sat idling on the tarmac—only to hear the captain’s voice crackle overhead: “Well, folks, we’re currently number 35 for take-off. It’s gonna be awhile.” You probably blamed lots of things: the sluggish airline people; the overcrowded skies and airplanes; and the bankrupt airlines.
In truth, none of those are really to blame. It’s actually the way we control and route planes, a patchwork quilt of methods inherited from the 1930s. Fixing the problem isn’t about building more airplanes or airports. It’s a design problem, rooted in the way we model the skies overhead.
“The inefficiencies we have today cause damage to the environment, and they put the airlines in trouble,” says Dr Bob Smith. Honeywell's chief technology officer. “So what you need is to rethink how we use airspace.” Engineers and designers at Honeywell have been furiously devising a solution, with technology that will let planes fly closer, timelier, and smarter. Though it's only trickling out now, by 2015 it will define the way airplanes are controlled and flown.
Right now, the skies above you seem limitless, but air traffic controllers cordon them off into a bunch of straight lines from point A to B. To keep all the aircraft safe, they have to fly at fixed distances from each other.
That poses myriad problems. For one, every airplane should be flying a distinct, curved path—the shortest route from A to B, given Earth's curvature. Instead, they’re routed onto the sky’s equivalent of out-of-the-way roads and highways, which are arrow-straight, making routes longer and waste fuel. When you add all the route inefficiencies and all the tarmac delays, 11% of the fuel an airplane burns is pure waste. For an airline, 11% in extra fuel costs can easily be the difference between bankruptcy and profitability—and all that inefficiency, according to Smith, could be eliminated by Honeywell's new tech.
Smith breaks down the technologies that Honeywell is devising into four categories: navigation, guidance, communications, and surveillance. While these changes won't be appearing tomorrow, by 2015 they will be installed throughout Europe, and the technology will be installed in enough planes to make a difference in the system as a whole.
In navigation, planes usually fly into an airport by following a straight line radio signal issued by air traffic control—those are the crowded roads. But the technology is now in place to provide customized curved routes for every airplane—and have then guided by GPS, rather than a single, shared signal from the airport. "That means you don't have to build as many runways," says Smith.
That change in navigation ripples through both guidance and surveillance systems. Airplanes will soon be fitted with transponders which calculate their exact location, using GPS way points, gyroscopes that calculate the exact angles the airplane has been flying, and speed measurements. These in turn will be sent to air traffic control, doing away with radar—a problematic tech, since radar only sweeps across an area, giving periodic rather than constant position updates. (One reason planes have to fly so far apart is how often the radar sweeps an area.)
That means that both the airport and the individual airplanes will have have real-time, 3-D maps of where airplanes are, and where they're headed. They can each be flying an efficient route, without fear of getting too close for comfort.
As to communication, Honeywell is working on an in-flight texting system, which Europe is already mandating by 2013. Instead of the uncertainty of verbal communications, air traffic controllers will communicate with planes by text, which will allow them to coordinate more clearly, and allow all the incoming and outgoing messages be monitored together.
All of this, says Smith, is part of an "inflection point" occurring in the airplane industry. "I grew up on the Jetsons," says Smith. "I'm waiting for my flying car. I'm waiting for piloting to become much more natural. And now we have the technology to do that." For example, the control sticks—these are still based on the basic mechanics that the Wrights used to control the flaps on the first aircraft. But these can be replaced with much more intuitive, ergonomic controls. And as for instrumentation, it'll become more visual, and based on what you see when you actually look out the window, rather than gauges that reduce flying into a checklist. "We're going to be changing the way people fly and actually touch an aircraft," he says. "We can actually reshape the pilot."
[Top image by YoLoPey.]