What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050

What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
There’s a lot of technical re-invention in store for the airliner. Boeing & NASA

The aircraft industry is expecting a seven-fold increase in air traffic by 2050, and a four-fold increase in greenhouse gas emissions unless fundamental changes are made. But just how "fundamental" will those changes need to be and what will be their effect on the aircraft we use?

The crucial next step towards ensuring the aircraft industry becomes greener is the full electrification of . That's zero CO2 and NOx emissions, with energy sourced from power stations that are themselves sustainably fuelled. The main technological barrier that must be overcome is the energy density of batteries, a measure of how much power can be generated from a battery of a certain weight.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that once batteries are capable of producing 400 Watt-hours per kilogram, with a ratio of power cell to overall mass of between 0.7-0.8, an electrical transcontinental aircraft becomes "compelling".

Given that practical lithium-ion batteries were capable of achieving energy-densities of 113Wh/kg in 1994, 202Wh/kg in 2004, and are now capable of approximately 300Wh/kg, it's reasonable to assume that they will hit 400Wh/kg in the coming decade.

Another aspect is the exponential fall in the cost of solar panels, which have already become the cheapest form of power in most US states. The expected 70% reduction in cost of lithium-ion batteries by 2025, and the rapid rise seen in the cost of kerosene-based jet fuel means that there will be a large and growing disparity in the costs of running aircraft that will greatly favour electrification. As is often the case, the reasons that will slow transition are not technological, but are rooted in the economic and political inertia against overturning the status-quo.

Biofuels while we wait

Considering the average service-life of passenger and freight aircraft are around 21 and 33 years respectively, even if all new aircraft manufactured from tomorrow were fully electric, the transition away from fossil-fuelled aircraft would take two to three decades.

In the meantime, biofuel offers carbon emissions reductions of between 36-85%, with the variability depending on the type of land used to grow the fuel crops. As switching from one fuel to another is relatively straightforward, this is a low-hanging fruit worth pursuing before completely phasing out combustion engines.

Even though a biofuel-kerosene jet fuel blend was certified in 2009, the aircraft industry is in no hurry to implement change. There are minor technological hurdles and issues around scaling up biofuel production to industrial levels, but the main constraint is price – parity with fossil fuels is still ten years away.

Elon Musk on electric aircraft

The adoption of any new aircraft technology – from research, to design sketches, to testing and full integration – is typically a decade-long process. Given that the combustion engine will be phased out by mid-century, it would seem to make more economic and environmental sense to innovate in other areas: airframe design, materials research, electric propulsion design and control.

Bringing aircraft to life

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.—Popular Mechanics, 1949

As we can see, we are living in a world of exponential change in technology. We need to step out of our linear day-to-day thinking to fully conceive and make use of what we have to shape the future.

In terms of the cost of computational power, computer technology is advancing more each hour today than it did in its entire first 90 years. With this in mind we can project that the equivalent of a US$1,000 computer today will by 2023 be more powerful than the potential brainpower of a human and, by 2045, will surpass the brainpower equivalent to all human brains combined.

The miniaturisation of digital electronics over the past half-century has followed a similar exponential trend, with the size of transistor gates reducing from approximately 1,000 nanometres in 1970 to 23 nanometres today. With the advent of transistors made of graphene showing great promise, this is expected to fall further to about 7 nanometres by 2025. By comparison, a human red blood cell is approximately 6,200-8,200 nanometres wide.

Putting together this increase in and decrease in circuit size, and adding in the progress made with 3D-printing, at some point in the next decade we will be able to produce integrated computers powerful enough to control an aircraft at the equivalent of the cellular level in near real-time – wireless interlinking of nano-scale digital devices.

What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
VoltAir, all-electric aircraft concept. Credit: EADS

Using a biologically-inspired digital "nervous system" with receptors arranged over the aircraft sensing forces, temperatures, and airflow states could drastically improve the energy efficiency of aircraft, when coupled to software and hardware mechanisms to control or even change the shape of the aircraft in response.

Chopping the tail

What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
Comparing a Micro Electronic Mechanism crankshaft and gear with a pollen grain and red blood cells. Credit: Sandia National Laboratories, SUMMIT Technologies

Once electric aircraft are established, the next step will be to integrate a gimballed propulsion system, one that can provide thrust in any direction. This will remove the need for the elevators, rudders, and tailplane control surfaces that current designs require, but which add significant mass and drag.

What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
Skeleton of trailing edge of wing morphing wind-tunnel demonstrator concept Ash Dove-Jay, University of Bristol

The wings we are already designing are near their peak in terms of aerodynamic efficiency, but they still do no justice to what nature has achieved in birds. Aircraft design templates are a century old – constrained by the limitations of the day then, but technology has since moved on. We no longer need to build wings as rigid structures with discrete control surfaces, but can turn to the natural world for inspiration. As Richard Feynman said:

What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
Technology evolution of digital storage (2005-2014)

I think nature's imagination is so much greater than man's, she's never going to let us relax.

Industry's outlook of the future

The industry has not been idle, of course. Here are some of their designs on the drawing board:

  • What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
    E-Thrust Project. Credit: EADS
  • What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
    Blended Wing Body. Credit: Boeing & NASA
  • What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
    Airbus 2050 concept plane. Credit: Airbus
  • What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
    Electric aircraft. Credit: NASA
  • What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050
    Prandtl Plane air freighter. Credit: University of Pisa

Explore further

Morphing is one way to make aircraft more efficient

This story is published courtesy of The Conversation (under Creative Commons-Attribution/No derivatives).
The Conversation

Citation: What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050 (2014, November 7) retrieved 25 May 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2014-11-commercial-aircraft.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.
0 shares

Feedback to editors

User comments

Nov 07, 2014
Airplanes should be blackish and have some solar cells.

Nov 07, 2014
If I my arithmetic is correct, jet fuel has an energy density of more than 10 kWh per kg. Even if one assumes sizable improvements in efficiency due to better materials and aerodynamics, a 25-fold improvement strikes me as wishful thinking.

Nov 07, 2014
Your main problem is that you have a one-track mind.

Nov 07, 2014
With this in mind we can project that the equivalent of a US$1,000 computer today will by 2023 be more powerful than the potential brainpower of a human and, by 2045, will surpass the brainpower equivalent to all human brains combined.


There's no reason why that should happen.

In reality, technology development follows more a sigmoid than an exponential curve, and computers have been showing signs of slowing down to a plateau since the 90s. The singularists are just using irrelevant or misleading metrics to argue that it's still going.

A sigmoid is produced by a self-catalyzing system - a technology that accelerates the development of itself. It starts off slow, picks up speed exponentially, and then slows down as it runs out of headroom to exploit the potential of the technolgy you're trying to develop.

Such an "experience curve" is seen e.g. in NiCD/NiMH batteries where prices started to drop exponentially, but then leveled off as the technology reached maturity

Nov 07, 2014
It was in part the fast decline of NiMH cell prices in the late 80's that fuelled the second big rally for the development of electric vehicles. Everyone thought that the energy density would keep going up and the prices down and the solution over lead acid batteries was just around the corner, so they kinda took a false start.

Well, it took a whole other battery chemistry and two decades more before it got to the point where companies like Tesla and Nissan are, what GM and Toyota an a whole host of starry-eyed Californian dreamers thought would happen by 1995.

If I my arithmetic is correct, jet fuel has an energy density of more than 10 kWh per kg.


Jet engines however are only up to 50-60% efficient in turning that energy to motion, so the difference is more like 10 fold. The jet exhaust is hot, whereas an electric fan isn't.


Nov 07, 2014
For example, in the picture that shows a 1000 fold increase in storage density for flash memory cards over 9 years is not due to the fundamental technology becoming better.

Between 2005 and 2014 the manufacturing density of silicon chips went from 65 nm to 14 nm which means you can pack 21 times more transistors on the same chip - not 1000 times more. Since silicon chip technology is limited by the size of the atoms themselves at below 5 nm, there's only ever going to be an improvement of about 3 times over what we have now. Then we've exhausted the potential of the chip technology we have, and possibly will ever have.

The increase in storage space is mostly due to decrease in price of high volume manufacturing, which means one can afford a larger chip at a marketable price.

So the next option is going to simply be using more silicon, stacking chips, etc. but that's not going to yield the same exponential improvement as scaling down the feature size.

Nov 07, 2014
Once electric aircraft are established, the next step will be to integrate a gimballed propulsion system, one that can provide thrust in any direction. This will remove the need for the elevators, rudders, and tailplane control surfaces that current designs require, but which add significant mass and drag.


Thrust vectoring alone is not sufficient to control an airplane. If you can't control the shape of the wings, you can't control their lift or drag, and it becomes mighty difficult and inefficient to steer - like a bird with wings cast in plaster.

If you can't apply so much as an airbrake when approaching the runway, you're in big trouble. It seems like the whole article is written by people who have no idea how airplanes fly, and are just dazzled by the idea that technology is going to get so much better so fast that we'll invent anti-gravity next year.


Nov 07, 2014
Have you seen the skid marks left behind by airbrakes? the marks just hang there in the air.

thrust vectoring has been around since the 60's so it not a problem for controlling a non-military plane.

Nov 08, 2014
In reality, technology development follows more a sigmoid than an exponential curve, and computers have been showing signs of slowing down to a plateau since the 90s. The singularists are just using irrelevant or misleading metrics to argue that it's still going.

Your allusion that AI can only be accomplished by tossing an inconceivably large number of transistors at the problem. Even given the prosaic Von Neumann architecture, computing tasks today are delimited by the complex, cumbersome, and poorly understood or controlled process of creating software, not the computing power of the device.

If you point is you don't believe AI will be achieved, I'd disagree. In don't on the other hand have any expectation as to when it will occur.

Nov 08, 2014
Your allusion that AI can only be accomplished by tossing an inconceivably large number of transistors at the problem.


What's AI have to do with airplanes?

I was just pointing out that extrapolating from "observed" trends is a fool's errand because it ignores the underlying reality of what drives the development in the first place, and what are its physical limits.

Moore's law might have been warranted in the 60's because, as Moore himself said, he saw no reason why the development wouldn't continue for at least a decade more. After that decade was over, he revised the prediction to a slower rate, and after that everyone's been revising it over and over again and including different things to measure.

Which is like holding a compass in your hand and thinking you're going straight because the needle keeps pointing in the same direction, when in reality you're walking sideways.


Nov 08, 2014
Have you seen the skid marks left behind by airbrakes? the marks just hang there in the air.


No. I don't think I have the sort of vision required to see air vortices directly.


thrust vectoring has been around since the 60's so it not a problem for controlling a non-military plane.


Thrust vectoring is used in planes that have very high thrust to lift ratio, like fighter jets. They can "fly" by simply pointing the jet exhaust in a suitable direction.

Commercial airliners are completely the opposite. They have low thrust to lift ratio, and so the gimbaling engine couldn't possibly steer the plane against the lifting and steering forces induced by its wings and fuselage. It would be like trying to steer an oil tanker with a 10 HP outboard engine strapped to a long pole.

It can help, but it can't eliminate the need for rudders and flaps.

Nov 08, 2014
capable of producing 400 Watt-hours per kilogram


Hmm. Sounds like this is easily doable with aluminum air batteries (which are non-rechargeable, but can have around 1300Wh/kg at pesent and are projected to go to 2000qh/kg soon) .
And since we're talking aircraft (i.e. vehicles bound to airports) there's no reason to balk at infrustructure where large batteries need to be swapped out and you have to have a almost 100% reuse of spent batteries.

Refurbishing them takes a lot of energy, but it would be one of those things that can be done with excess production of renewable energy (i.e. at times when the energy costs next to nothing). There's still some issues with anode stability - but from what I read there's a bunch of promising avenues of reseach going on in that direction.

Nov 09, 2014
Tomorrow's plane won't need those old fashioned forms of control (rudders and flaps). flaps and rudders will be eliminated by the adaptive wing form. stop reading the old news from the 70's.

Nov 09, 2014
Very heavy lift cargo at cost per ton mile near below rail are possible; Check out ConcordLift.com for a radical configuration with many possibilities, Artist illustrations and AIAA paper on the web site. No suggestion has been made this could not fly or would not be profitable. Under active research. Low, slow, low drag, low power, low wing load yet very heavy lift.

Nov 15, 2014
Re. the thrust vectoring idea:

A 747 jet has a thrust-to-weight ratio of about 0.27 whereas a F-22 fighter plane has 1.09.

That means the wings of the 747 produce over three times as much force in level flight as the engines, and consequently are much more effective at steering the plane than the engine is. If you tilt the plane sideways, it's going to go where the wings take it - not where the engine is trying to.

flaps and rudders will be eliminated by the adaptive wing form. stop reading the old news from the 70's.


The point that the article was trying to make was that one would do away with the internal mechanisms entirely because they weigh a lot. The flaps and rudders themselves don't.

Adaptive wing form still needs a mechanism to actuate it.

Nov 15, 2014
They are not talking about weight ratios but about reducing drag and pitch angle in flight. this would reduce operating costs (fuel) for the entire life of the plane. Any aircraft company can remove weight but do you really want to fly in something with a paper thin fuselage? The sad part is that these designs have been around for over 30 years.


Dec 11, 2014

Smaller Aircraft Tails Possible

Researchers at Caltech and the University of Arizona are working on a system that may someday allow aircraft designers to drastically reduce the size of the vertical stabilizer. That, they say, will reduce weight and drag and save a lot of fuel. The researchers installed small jets along the rudder and blew streams of air over the control surface to increase its effectiveness at low speeds. This "active flow control" would allow tails to be at least 20 percent smaller, the researchers say.

Aircraft only really need the full tail at low speeds and the rudder size on multi-engine aircraft is determined by the amount of steering power required to offset asymmetrical thrust if an engine fails on takeoff. Increasing rudder effectiveness by blowing air over it means the rudder can be smaller and still keep the aircraft straight if an engine fails. The system would be activated during landing and takeoff but could be shut off for the rest of the fl

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more