“Moving is living,” says George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, a film that now feels like an artifact from an ancient civilization. But what happens when much of the world stops moving, at least temporarily, to save lives? For one thing, global daily carbon emissions plunged 17% in April thanks in large part to grounded planes and empty highways—a glimpse of a more local and sustainable future. But no one wants to hibernate forever.
As airports and airlines work overtime to adapt and win back passengers, a smaller world is breeding smaller, more innovative travel options: on-demand airlines are taking off in California and Europe, while urban air mobility (UAM), i.e., passenger drones, promise to drastically expand the scope of local and regional travel just in time for working-from-anywhere. Beyond that, a return to supersonic travel—and space!—beckons. Soon, it will be time again to broaden our horizons.
“While Zoom is a wonderful substitute for now, we need that human-to-human connection,” said Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures. “Just as we made changes to security after 9/11 to make passengers feel safe, we’re already seeing the widespread testing necessary for ‘health passports’ attesting the person next to you isn’t infectious.” Ironically, she made these points during an online discussion amongst engineers, entrepreneurs, and even a rocket scientist as part of Our Future in Focus, a virtual event series sponsored by Honeywell that explored where we’re headed—and how we’ll get there.
SUPERSONIC TAKES FLIGHT…AGAIN
“There’s a bit of a reset happening in how we travel, how we fly, and the technologies behind each,” noted Anita Sengupta, research associate professor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and former NASA scientist. For example, in a strange twist of fate, COVID-19 may have accelerated the return of commercial supersonic travel. After all, the shorter the flight, the less chance there is of contagion.
One startup capitalizing on this is Boom Technology, which in early October premiered the world’s first independently developed supersonic jet, the test plane XB-1. Boom’s plans depend on reducing the average cost of a ticket from astronomical to an international business-class flight and dampening the roar of sonic booms—which is crucial to winning approval for overland flights and an area of focus for Sengupta’s research.
But an even bigger shift in aviation is the impending switch from fossil fuels to electrification—with batteries for short-haul flights and hydrogen fuel cells for longer ones. “Electrification will lower fuel costs, which will help with the immediate challenges airlines are facing,” explained Mike Madsen, president and CEO of Honeywell Aerospace. “Looking ahead, it will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also lessen noise by eliminating hydraulic and pneumatic systems in favor of quieter electric ones.” Why does this matter? Because noise—and the threat of lawsuits it brings—is the biggest impediment to the skies being full of flying things.
Just as the jet engine changed the scope, scale, and speed of flight in ways that transcended technical improvements over piston-driven propellers, coupling electric rotors with steadily lighter batteries will change not only how we fly, but also where and why. Almost 80 years ago, Igor Sikorsky imagined commuting between the Catskills and Manhattan via Greyhound “helicopter buses.” Now, a startup named Lillium intends to do just that with a five-seat, all-electric jet capable of vertical takeoffs and landings on buildings.
“The first step will be shuttle flights from one city center to another as fast as high-speed rail, connecting states into neighborhoods, effectively,” said Lillium co-founder and CEO Daniel Wiegand. “The second will be autonomy, which will allow on-demand personal flights from anywhere to anywhere. We’ll have a means of transportation five times faster than the cars we have today. It will change everything.”
THE GREAT SPACE RACE
If this comes to pass (the Lillium Jet is still only in test flights), will the supposed flight from cities become a literal one? Sengupta sees a future more in line with Sikorsky’s original vision—one where UAM is used more often to deliver services to rural areas than commuters to the tops of skyscrapers. Simi agrees, pointing to the more than 5,000 underutilized airports around the United States poised to receive passengers with none of the hassles (or health precautions) of major hubs. And Madsen pictures personal UAMs ferrying us to local airports where a future generation of 10- to 50-seat, all-electric planes, such as the Zunum Aero, will connect us to other cities—unless Lillium gets there first.
But is that all there is? While most of us continue to shelter in place, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX have pressed on with their plans to conquer space. And the discovery of water on the sunlit surface of the moon has given renewed urgency to NASA’s Project Artemis plan to land another person there by 2024. “The challenge for commercial space travel has always been the cost-per-kilogram to launch something, and the great news is because of companies like SpaceX, that cost has come down a lot,” Sengupta said. “But there has to be a broader business case as well—space-based power, or asteroid mining, or eventually off-world manufacturing as a means of reducing our carbon footprint here on Earth.”
While sometimes hard to envision in light of a virus that makes one afraid to leave the house, it’s comforting to think that when living means moving again, new innovations will be waiting for us. “It’s rarely about the technology,” Madsen said, speaking about space specifically and travel in general. “It’s about what motivates us.”