Proceedings of a Workshop
Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief
The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine organized a 1-day visioning workshop to facilitate a dialog on the historical contributions of the ASEB to development of the U.S. civil aeronautics sector, recent advances and current challenges and opportunities in civil aviation, and new directions in air travel and technology in the coming 30 years. The workshop took place on October 12, 2017, as part of the board’s marking of its establishment in 1967. As noted by participants throughout the day, the 50th anniversary of the ASEB occurs in a rich historical context of achievements in aeronautics. The 100th anniversary of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) recently passed. The year 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the commercial jet age, which began with the first flight of the Boeing 707 in 1957. The year 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Finally, the workshop itself occurred on the 70th anniversary, almost to the day, of the breaking of the sound barrier.
The workshop opened with remarks from the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Marcia McNutt. McNutt recalled that the ASEB was founded in 1967 to address the nation’s need for a board that would focus the talents and energies of the engineering community on significant aerospace policies and programs. She noted that ASEB studies have had clear impacts on the nation’s aeronautics research efforts and that this workshop continues that work by providing a forum for discussing the priorities of the nation’s future in civil aviation.
Robert Lightfoot, NASA acting administrator, spoke next and reiterated that the ASEB has been and continues to be essential in guiding the direction of NASA’s aeronautics agenda. He noted that aeronautics is the first “A” in NASA and, to emphasize its national importance, reminded participants that aviation goods and services provide $90.5 billion in positive trade balance, 10.6 million direct and indirect jobs, and $1.6 trillion in U.S. economic activity. Today, NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) addresses many emerging challenges and opportunities. Among the opportunities emphasized by Lightfoot were ultra-efficient flight, supersonic overland flight, electric aircraft propulsion, on-demand and urban-air mobility, and fully autonomous flight. Such opportunities, however, present challenges because they must be balanced with operational flight requirements, including safety. To address these challenges and yet sustain innovation in aviation technology, he suggested that an environment of competition, cooperation, and collaboration between government and industry needs to be
fostered. After providing some examples of NASA’s current research portfolio, Lightfoot concluded by projecting a future of aviation breakthroughs, with ARMD implementing the ASEB’s advice—advice that is used to benchmark progress and help shape policies and guide research focused on the next 25 years and beyond.
Alan Epstein, chair of the ASEB, then introduced the four sessions of the day: a retrospective of the jet age 1958-2017, a look at current challenges for aviation, a dialogue on the future of commercial air travel, and a discussion on new directions for aviation technologies.
60 YEARS OF AVIATION AND AERONAUTICS IN THE JET AGE (1958-2017)
Robie Samanta Roy, ASEB member, opened the first session and introduced the session panelists—Richard Hallion of Florida Polytechnic University, Robert van der Linden of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, and Jaiwon Shin of NASA ARMD.
Hallion’s presentation introduced the theme of the session and focused on highlights of aviation history. He defined the past century as a revolution of progressive capability in aeronautics and astronautics, evidencing this with benchmarks in technological developments since the first powered, sustained flight in 1903. He pointed out that although flight speed, a common metric for measuring progress in aviation technology, plateaued in 1960, developments in areas such as propulsion and aircraft efficiency and range argue that the technological revolution continues to the present. Hallion cautioned, however, that underlying societal and organizational factors have both hindered and helped aeronautics advancements. He recalled on the one hand the self-limiting mindset of the Wright brothers, who hobbled aviation development in the United States through excessive legal control, with lasting impact through World War I. He noted that U.S. leadership was re-established in the 1930s with, for instance, the Douglas DC-1, which he called America’s “First Scientific Airplane.” He posited that U.S. leadership in the 1930s and a true revolution in U.S. aeronautics was a result of incorporating advanced academic research in flight together with government programs at NACA and the U.S. Bureau of Standards, along with industrial practice and increasingly friendly legal, policy, and economic environments. He also noted that the dual-use civilian and military industrial base for the aeronautics sector, a connection that remains today, led to immense success. He concluded by noting that the United States entered the 18th century at 6 mph—the speed of animal-moved transport, departed the 19th century at 60 mph—the speed of the steam locomotive, and departed the 20th century at 600 mph—the speed of the intercontinental jet liner. Might we not enter the 22nd century at 6,000 mph?
Shin, offering NASA’s perspective, opened by saying that he associates with the ASEB’s integrity, expertise, trust, and openness. He reiterated Hallion’s observation that the key to U.S. success in developing its aeronautics technology portfolio has been cooperation and collaboration between government agencies, industry, and academia—a purpose for which the ASEB is essential. He highlighted that the role of NASA ARMD is as a funder and requirement setter, and that NASA and the ASEB work together to achieve a common goal of ensuring that the United States stays at the leading edge of the field of aviation, advancing the nation’s global leadership and sustaining the economic advantage of the U.S. civil aviation sector in a climate of increasing international competition. He noted that by 2035 the number of passenger trips is forecast to double—with the Asia Pacific outstripping North America and Europe combined. He stressed that there is a lot at stake if we do not collectively concentrate and focus our national intellectual capacity to advance U.S. global leadership in a more competitive future. Shin praised the ASEB for focusing, through innovative mechanisms such as the Aeronautics Research and Technology Roundtable, on helping NASA develop its current set of strategic thrust areas and implementation of the ARMD program under a constrained budget. He concluded with the theme that NASA aeronautics, the ASEB, industry, and academia have worked together to advance the state of the art in aeronautics research. He said this national effort has given the United States “the edge,” but that this collaboration should not be taken for granted.
Samanta Roy began the discussion by asking panelist van der Linden to comment on the dynamics between technology “push” and user “pull” and economics in the context of supersonic transport (SST). van der Linden responded that speed in civil aviation has plateaued because of the high cost associated with fuel requirements for overcoming drag rise at high speeds. Thus, the operational efficiency of commercial supersonic flight was surpassed by the Boeing 747 jet, which lowered seat-mile cost and demonstrated that economics drive aviation trends.
Samanta Roy then moved the conversation to the dynamics of today’s rapid international diffusion of aviation technology in an increasingly globalized world. Hallion commented that the nature of competition between manufacturers has changed because all airplanes contain products from other countries. Nevertheless, he added, competition will be needed to ensure that the aerospace industry will retain its innovative nature, which is essential
in spurring technological development.
Citing modern workforce concerns, Samanta Roy asked how the aeronautics sector historically has attracted the best and brightest engineers. Hallion responded by saying we will have to integrate the workforce of today with the future workforce, while also integrating current technology—which will still be flying in 2050—along with innovations that will be adopted over the next 30 years. van der Linden agreed and emphasized that as early as the 1920s, Boeing invested in specific universities to create a workforce pipeline. Shin noted that the future workforce in aerospace will be a product of the digital revolution rather than traditional aerospace disciplines and highlighted that because of the speed of change in the digital sector, one of the prevailing characteristics of this workforce is impatience—the expectation of rapid product development and impact. He suggested that if traditional timescales of technological development in aerospace are maintained, it will create a poor match with the incoming workforce.
Opening the discussion to the workshop participants, David van Wie, ASEB member, asked what major advancements led to the increase in reliability and safety within the national air system. Hallion noted that the introduction of the jet engine was a key advance in safety, along with the introduction of the all-metal aircraft and associated deep knowledge of aircraft structure. He emphasized that aircraft operate within a safe system that benefits from combined improvements in weather prediction, training, maintenance, and technology, as well as a system-of-systems approach to safety. Shin added more recent advances in weather monitoring, synthetic vision, and safety data sharing and monitoring to identify the precursors of accidents.
Returning to Asian expansion in aeronautics and aerospace, Nancy Young of Airlines for America (A4A) asked if Chinese companies will become “the new Douglas,” alluding to Boeing’s former rival. In response, Hallion predicted that, barring internal disruption, all indications exist that the Chinese will become very strong global rivals in aeronautics because of the investments they are making in education, industrial infrastructure, and military systems. van der Linden agreed, adding that he hopes Boeing and Airbus are not taking competition posed by China lightly, but also noting that if they recognize the competition and respond, it will be beneficial to everyone. Shin noted that he expects high entry barriers for new entrants in the large transport category. But he added, in emerging markets, such as urban air mobility involving the production of possibly millions of units, those new markets will be more like the automotive industry with much lower entry costs. He also noted that U.S.-educated immigrant engineers are now returning in high numbers to their home countries in Asia, for instance, because those countries can offer exciting opportunities in emerging markets—and we need to pay attention to this issue. Shin added that the agency has been working to provide an attractive culture to a next generation, notwithstanding NASA’s bureaucratic shortcomings. The work is not done yet to overcome being too rigid, inflexible, and struggling to integrate new ideas. NASA Aeronautics is working hard to transform that culture. Shin concluded by reiterating that agency leadership does understand that this is an issue.
CURRENT CHALLENGES FOR AVIATION
Valerie Manning, ASEB member, opened the session by noting the breadth of current challenges facing the civil aviation industry—from those unique to operators versus passengers versus lessors, for example, to environmental impacts, to research and technology, to business management.
John Hansman of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology introduced the theme of challenges and opportunities for today’s commercial aviation sector. He started by reviewing 11 of what he believes are the greatest challenges (and opportunities) facing the industry today. These include (1) international growth trends in traditional aviation markets, with emphasis on growth potential in Asia; (2) growth in emerging nontraditional markets, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), urban air mobility, and commercial space launches—he noted that there are now over 940,000 registered UAV operators in the United States; (3) stimulating innovation in high-integrity markets in which innovation leads to financial loss; (4) engendering excitement in and meeting the expectations of the young workforce; (5) modernizing the national civil aviation system while maintaining safety—the current high level of safety can lead to conservatism, but how much do you want to spend to mitigate a concern that is a very low risk; (6) emerging nontraditional safety threats, such as the proficiency of human interactions with increasingly automated systems that require nontraditional training; (7) the emerging shortfall of pilots and technicians; (8) the capacity of the national airspace system (NAS), in particular capacity around markets such as New York City and runway capacity at key locations; (9) low-altitude urban airspace capacity with the inclusion of MedEvac and Uber-type transport ideas; (10) low success in implementation of modernization, partly because of the high level of safety in the current system; and (11) environmental issues, including greenhouse gas emission, noise pollution, and ultrafine particles.
Manning then introduced the panelists—John-Paul Clarke of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carl Burleson of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Nancy Young of A4A. Manning began by asking Young to address environmental challenges in civil aviation. Young responded that civil aviation has done well decreasing its environmental impact and integrating new technologies into the NAS—increasing fuel efficiency (which reduces greenhouse gas emissions) and reducing noise (95% reduction in the United States for those people exposed to significant noise since 1975 while also tripling the number of enplanements). She noted that technology is not always “the answer” when the industry has to consider how to accustom the public to changes in civil aviation—such as perhaps the reintroduction to supersonics or the deployment of new aircraft configurations, such as the blended wing design. To this, Manning asked Clarke which challenge is the greatest for modernization. Clarke noted that the NAS is a sequence of bottlenecks as currently configured, and the challenge of managing such a system only becomes compounded when you add in increasingly autonomous vehicles. He listed the challenge of “multimodal coordination,” that is, different types of aircraft operating in different modes, and noted that the traditional approach is separation. He warned that, in addition to security, characterizing and managing uncertainty—in airline scheduling, for example—is a huge challenge. Also, diminishing human capital is a challenge, while at the same time the interface between the human and the machine is evolving. Manning then prompted Burleson to comment on safety and human capital. He noted that identifying risk has become truly challenging and suggested that this is part of a larger problem—the system works so well, it is exceedingly difficult to envision an improved way of doing business. Other challenges for the FAA include the aging workforce—the need to improve the inflow into the industry of younger personnel; integrating disruptive technologies like drones, which caught the FAA off guard; and socializing change in a system that now has to accommodate new nontraditional players from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. Burleson added that the FAA has learned from the implementation of NexGen that large changes to the airspace system cannot simply be thought of as technology solutions and that community engagement is mandatory.
In response to Manning’s prompt to discuss business and operational opportunities provided by data produced by aircraft and passengers, Hansman noted these data are not being fully exploited today, often because they are restricted under privacy agreements with crew. But he added the data would be valuable, through data mining, not only for improving safety and operational efficiency but also in developing and testing autonomous technologies. Young agreed and suggested focusing on “little data” (discrete computer systems) as a transitional effort to maximize operations and manage a transition to where we want to go with the industry in the future. Clarke advocated for the analysis of parallel data onboard vehicles as key to safety, stating that gathering and analyzing big data are vital to advancing autonomous technologies because of the statistical strength they provide. Burleson interjected that there are surprising linkages between government and the private sector—for instance, companies have built businesses based on data provided by the FAA, underscoring the role of the market viability in guiding which data are valuable.
Burleson then returned to the topic of safety, expressing concern that there is a mismatch between where there is growth in aviation and where there is regulatory capability in the world. Young agreed, emphasizing that international aviation standards have been, until recently, developed by a group of like-minded countries with comparable regulatory structures, but that this dynamic is changing as new aviation powers with different regulation cultures emerge. Burleson built on this by saying that the United States is still a catalyst of discussion and negotiation but no longer the dominant voice in the international aviation standards and policy forum.
Manning then asked the panel how the demand for human capital might be reduced with efficiency or technology. Hartman advocated for improved manpower efficiency; however, he stressed the continued importance of quality crew training because the new workforce is coming from a different experience base (e.g., UAVs, video games), which potentially sets us up for a new class of accidents. Clarke contributed that, as noted in the National Research Council report on increasing autonomy in civil aviation,1 an autonomous system might be used to monitor the human as opposed to the inverse case, which would open up new operational modalities.
Opening up the discussion to the audience, and providing NASA’s perspective, Jay Dryer, of NASA ARMD, focused on the challenge of balancing on the one hand safety, regulation, and certification and on the other the drive for innovation and the quick introduction of new technologies. He also noted the challenges that drive opportunities in new markets, how societal expectations drive markets, and the necessity that the incoming workforce be multidisciplinary because of increasing integration of nontraditional technologies with more traditional aeronautics technologies. He closed by suggesting that having a risk-taking culture will be key.
1 National Research Council, Autonomy Research for Civil Aviation: Toward a New Era of Flight, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2014.
Epstein asked the panel what the capacity of the NAS will be in the year 2050. Hartman projected that long-term traditional commercial growth in the United States will be tied to population growth, and congestion will be problematic—the NAS is approaching infrastructure capacity, and there will be a surge in small vehicles in urban airspace. He noted that one challenge will be figuring out how to reduce separation standards. Burleson added that the breadth of the definition of infrastructure in the NAS is growing; whereas systems in the past have been self-contained, future systems will be integrated into a complex ecology of increasing interdependence. Clarke noted that flight control systems, for example, have no software parallels or redundancies.
Samanta Roy noted that the ability to integrate new materials into mainstream aerospace systems has been disappointing and asked how certification and validation can help. Hartman referred back to the high level of safety in the NAS and although the FAA is making it easier to introduce new technologies, it is often not economically favorable to undergo testing and certification to, for instance, introduce new materials into a vehicle. Furthermore, there is no easy way to take risk or assess which risk should be taken. Burleson agreed, pointing out that legislative discourse around technology introduction often also constrains regulation. Additionally, global supply chains make certification more difficult. He proposed that lawmakers must be educated on risk and how risk should be taken.
In response to a question from online viewers about what federal agencies should be doing today to both mitigate the risk of globalization and take advantage of the challenges, Hunsman highlighted that because of the level of safety in the U.S. systems, it is easier to test new technologies elsewhere as in Singapore (self-driving cars) or Dubai (Uber Elevate). This reality creates a competitive advantage outside of the United States. Young agreed and emphasized that the government needs a strong national aviation policy, recognizing the importance of the aviation and aerospace industry and investing in aeronautics development in the national interest—especially if we want as a nation to remain the world leader. Burleson responded that the United States has invested heavily in engaging with international aviation through training and improving standards—focusing on where Americans are traveling.
Brian Argrow, ASEB member, then asked how privatization of air traffic control intersects with politics and policy in aviation. Young responded that U.S. airlines believe it makes sense to privatize air traffic control, leaving regulation with the regulator and operations with another entity to achieve efficiencies within the system in a better way. Hartman expressed “grave concern” that the United States privatize air traffic control in the right way. He said that we already have a very efficient system and is not sure what the nation will gain from such a move, and he noted such a move may restrict innovation capability. Burleson noted that there are many international models for accomplishing privatization. He said the Administration is supportive, but that there is a clear split in Congress.
FUTURE VISIONS—COMMERCIAL AIR TRAVEL
Mark Lewis, ASEB member, introduced the sessions panelists—Juan Alonso of Stanford University, Robert Liebeck of Boeing, and Graham Warwick of Aviation Week—and invited Pierre Chao of Renaissance Strategic Advisors to introduce the theme of future visions for commercial air travel.
To demonstrate how much can change in 30 years, Chao began by recounting in 30-year increments developments in aeronautics and how 30 years (the time period to 2050) has in the past been a significant time period with regard to the implementation of technology and the shape of the aviation industry overall. He noted that commercial aviation has been a 40-year growth market and that there is little sign that the relationship between GDP and market growth is weakening, thus predicting that it should remain a healthy growth market on which new players try to capitalize. He noted that cycles do come and go in a market, but when it comes to aviation, the cycles are occurring on a trend of net growth. He also argued that the rationality in the industry has been due to the emergence of a duopoly. On the latter point, Chao commented that countries with inherent national need for aircraft, such as China because of its size, tend to develop their own industry from necessity. Chao then moved on to talk about industry life cycles, indicating that the UAV industry represents the early phase—the so-called “entry and experimentation” phase of the life cycle—during which product innovation is key, whereas commercial aviation is in a mature “stability and decline” phase of its life cycle, and now benefits more from process innovation. Alluding to the keynote address, he stated that incrementalism is the appropriate mindset for a mature market, but that market maturity should not be conflated with high and low technology. At the same time, he noted that in a mature phase, it becomes an imperative to pursue innovation that will re-start the cycle. He suggested that autonomy is such a technology and that it is appropriate for NASA to invest in technologies that would restart the aviation industry cycle. In conclusion, Chao focused on innovations in areas such as supersonics, autonomy, electric propulsion, urban air transport, and novel aircraft configurations as being the technologies being pursued for the aviation restart—but there is work to be done to see which ones may succeed.
Lewis then invited panelist opening comments, and Alonso began by suggesting that there are guideposts for technologies that might be in end states in 2050, and that these include the following: increased automation and reduced energy intensity, environmental impact, and cost. He also noted an acceleration in aeronautics innovation is likely in the near future—possibly by a factor of two or more. He also noted he expects that new unconventional configurations could mature in that environment. Liebeck believes that by 2050 the industry will be transitioning away from jet-A fueled engines, and we need to figure out how to do that. Warwick concluded by stating that the industry is changing because of investors willing to finance new ideas, but that the biggest changes will not be in response to new technologies, but rather to new business models, because even with the best efforts in technological development, 2050 is only about one “tech refresh” away, and industry actors want to be “fast in relative terms.”
Lewis then asked the panelists what commercial air transportation will look like in 2050. Warwick remarked that there can be cultural resistance to new technology, and to get it off the ground, its capabilities must be overstated—in turn, the distillation of the visionary idea is what becomes the product. He also noted that as we get to the end of the model of two turbofans under a wing, it is likely that electric distribution of power will enable the transition to the next architecture. Liebeck suggested the future lies in structures, materials, manufacturing, and flight mechanics. Chao responded that there will be a third major player in aircraft manufacturing—most likely in Asia—but 80 percent of the aesthetic will be familiar. He also noted that the risk is that the technologic breakthrough does not come from the United States, but is driven by different flight requirements elsewhere (e.g., the perception of speed and distance could be different in Asia).
Robert Pearce of NASA ARMD provided a NASA perspective, beginning with enthusiasm for the idea of NASA’s role in helping industry’s restarting of “the cycle” but pointed out that the innovations are not being made for novelty’s sake, but to lower cost, lower noise, increase efficiency, and expand operational choices, which when blended together, drive us to new configurations, such as blended wing body aircraft. He noted that one thing the
A MARKET ANALYST INTRUDES - INDUSTRY CONDITIONS AND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF FLIGHT
In the keynote address, Richard Aboulafia of Teal Group addressed three topics: aviation market drivers and conditions, aviation market characteristics, and technology and its commercial drivers. He noted that the aviation market is performing extremely well—better than any other part of the aerospace industry—but has departed from the 10-year cycles of the past, indicating diminished volatility, and since 2004, revenue has been on an upward trajectory. He attributed this trend to three enablers: an increase in the number of people converting disposable income to air travel and a healthy freight sector, bifurcation between oil prices and the cost of capital (interest rates), and the emerging market in China (passing the United States in deliveries in 2015). The market is characterized by mass transport with large aircraft, a strong relationship between gross domestic product (GDP) and air travel demand, decreasing yield per revenue passenger mile (something to consider when thinking about the application of new technologies), and decreasing aircraft unit cost. Aboulafia postulated that the industry has been deflating in real terms and that the “empire of growth and critical mass” is largely based on sacrificing profitability. He suggested that in this environment technology must pay for itself quickly by either raising revenue or lowering cost. On the subject of technological trends, he noted that we have a terrible record of predicting future technologies and that they commonly take longer to develop than is expected. More importantly, development does not mean commercialization, and commercialization does not mandate mass utilization. Aboulafia finally noted that military developments are much less of a source of civil technology than in the past—meaning that the civil sector will have to be responsible for more of its own technology development.
John Langford of Aurora Flight Sciences asked how NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate should use its limited budget. Aboulafia answered that rather than look at high-payoff performance, NASA should pursue high-payoff economics and technological developments that can be realized incrementally to bring down costs. John Hunsman of M.I.T. contested that it is not NASA’s role to pursue incremental developments that industry will pursue anyway, and that NASA should be pursuing more fundamental, high-risk opportunities as well as changes that might have significant societal impact—for instance, a reduction in the cost of MedEvac helicopter transport. Aboulafia conceded the point but suggested focusing on reducing cost. Mark Lewis, ASEB member, asked if Aboulafia’s concerns about SST extend to SST business jets. Highlighting cabin size requirements as being key in this sector, Aboulafia responded that SST business jets are a niche market and must respond to customer surveys. Juan Alonso of Stanford University asked if there are historical examples of disruptive technologies that were not cost-effective but have caused industry revolutions. Aboulafia responded that war accelerates technological development and that regulations for the public good sometimes skew things in favor of new technologies that can be catalysts for revolution.
panel hadn’t mentioned was the increasing integration of traditionally isolated aviation systems with the Internet and other systems on which the economy depends (e.g., global positioning systems) and that he anticipates this trend will continue and will be driven by UAS. Lastly, Pearce mentioned that while NASA continues to systematically improve SST efficiency and cost, it is not NASA’s job to figure out what the market will absorb, only to try to knock down technology barriers so the market can develop new products.
Expanding the discussion to other attendees, Argrow asked if the next generation might be more comfortable with remote communication, thus diminishing demand for air travel. Chao responded that millennials, who are now in the flying population, do not appear to have different air travel habits, according to available data. However, tele-connectivity has already altered working practices, making it necessary to constantly check for any evidence of a consumer shift in the aviation sector. Liebeck commented that he is not sure in-person contact will prevail, owing to cost and convenience. Warwick agreed that who travels and why will change, but that industry will not face a problem until those who stop flying are no longer replaced by those who have never flown.
Tom Irvine of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) asked the question, As the market grows, because of socioeconomic changes in Asia, will new flyers have a strong appetite for new technologies that will force sectoral change? Chao replied that the new flyers have no preconceived notions about what the flight experience looks like, and this encourages the introduction of new technologies to improve the passenger experience (e.g., reduced security measures or back-of-the-airplane comfort and entertainment). At the same time, the United States has so much invested in the current flight system that change is unlikely to occur here first. Alonso commented that he believes the passenger experience is unlikely to change substantially, but how it is delivered will change during the two or so product cycles between now and 2050. For example, hybrid-electric and electric technologies will percolate up to the larger aircraft to open the design space. Warwick built on this idea, saying that the potential disruption to the market will come if a supplier provides a new product that is of higher value to the flying and future flying population.
Liebeck then returned to the topic of autonomy, stating that operator error is the most common cause of safety incidents and that autonomy could overcome this. Warwick interjected that you do not have to take the pilot out of the cockpit, you simply change their job—autonomy will help the human for decades before it comes into its own right. Manning asked if the aircraft can be automated without automating traffic control, to which Warwick responded that autonomy is one of the most important technologies existing because it can be pervasive, and it simplifies complicated jobs and will help to reduce training and personnel requirements. Alonso agreed that autonomy is a system-level solution and must be applied to aviation system-wide all at once. Chao suggested that the economic imperative will come from the pilot shortage because autonomy is the solution.
The session concluded with an online guest asking if there is another end state for aviation in which travel is not about reaching the destination quickly but rather about the enjoyable passenger experience, as on cruise ships. Warwick commented on the possibility, saying that airlines are struggling with the commoditization of their service and with differentiating themselves, which has spurred interest in unique products, such as Boom’s 55-seat aircraft. Chao agreed that this is a timely question and drew attention to a shift in the economy away from mass production and toward mass customization of experience, leading to niche markets supported by private investments.
FUTURE VISIONS—NEW DIRECTIONS FOR AVIATION
Nicholas Lappos, ASEB member, introduced the panelists—Ilan Kroo of Stanford University, Atherton Carty of Lockheed Martin SkunkWorks, Pradeep Fernandes of Boeing HorizonX, and John Langford of Aurora Flight Sciences—for the final session and briefly reviewed key technologies in the future of aviation, including the increased use of autonomy, urban mobility, and electric propulsion. In particular, he noted that U.S. society has been shaped by transportation—river transport, railroads, and so on—and this trend is likely to continue as the transportation ecosystem evolves.
Kroo began with the observation that despite automation in aircraft preceding autonomy in cars, “driver-less” cars are perceived by the public as state of the art. He pointed to how autonomous aircraft may fulfill the societal needs of delivering goods and enabling personal mobility and could affect urbanization, traffic, housing, communication, and the environment. Yet urban airspace autonomous vehicles face regulatory challenges (safety, traffic management, noise, security, privacy, etc.) and still require technical advances (electric propulsion and infrastructure, energy storage, precision navigation, deep learning, etc.). Kroo emphasized the difficulty of accomplishing mass integration of personal aircraft into the urban airspace. He was encouraged by the enthusiasm
and engagement of the young workforce in this field when it comes to personal mobility and so on. He concluded with future-looking questions for the panel to discuss—such as how close in time is this vision of the future, what are the barriers, what infrastructure is needed, and so on—and a summary of critical technologies, such as vehicle autonomy and augmentation, revolutionary propulsion, safety-critical software, machine learning, applying new materials, low-cost electronics, etc.
Carty noted that the cross-disciplinary application of new technologies in aviation must be cultivated in the incoming workforce. He predicted that these technologies would be transformative in societies with less robust existing transportation systems. He expressed the hope that increased collaboration across the industry will spur innovation. Langford suggested that the real revolution happening today is the “democratization of flying.” He also posited that understanding the spectrum of autonomy is key and that autonomy does not remove the human from the system but shifts where the human operates within the system. He concluded by commenting that the “drone revolution” has been driven in part by entrepreneurial storytelling and how that has, in turn, shaped societal perceptions and demand. This demand results in an incredibly dynamic and exciting time in aviation, which will permeate every part of the economy, creating new markets. Fernandes summarized three themes coming out of the day’s discussion: the challenge of creating innovation in a massive industry; the speed, or lack thereof, at which development happens; and the powerful drivers of economics and market demand in the success of technology. He also asked the following questions when considering the future: Who is going to invest in improving the energy density of batteries, in beating the noise challenge, and activating the dormant capacity in our aviation infrastructure across the country?
Turning to the role of NASA, Langford noted that NASA must be dedicated over the long term to autonomy research, which includes both working on the infrastructure for autonomous vehicle traffic management as well as the certification of “trusted-autonomy” systems. Kroo then noted that many of the companies now getting involved in autonomous aircraft have little expertise in aerospace, and one of NASA’s roles continues to be advising the industry on how to integrate themselves into the aeronautics community and combining the computer science with the physics. Carty responded that NASA needs to continue to be willing to take risks in research and development that others cannot or will not take. He noted that NASA is doing a good job of evolving into a leadership role and partnership with business—including being focused on the business case for the insertion of new technologies. Following on this, Fernandes envisioned increased opportunities for collaboration between NASA, equipment manufacturers, and the FAA on fundamental, critical challenges such as infrastructure and the system capacity. Lappos added that NASA has an important role to act as the honest, unbiased broker that provides guidance materials to the regulators—as it has done in the past—such as with the application of fly-by-wire technologies.
Turning to the role of the FAA, Carty noted that the NAS is incredibly robust because of the processes the FAA has defined to create a stable, safe system that is characterized by predictability and redundancy. Looking to a future with much more crowded air space, however, the FAA needs to streamline these processes such that they can be applied on an order of magnitude larger scale while retaining the system’s stability, predictability, robustness, and safety. Langford added that the FAA is antiquated and needs to follow the model of the wireless communications market, which has taken a remarkably complex system, masked the complexity with technology, and made it useable by everyone. He held up his cellular telephone and compared it to the ham radio of the past. This transformation has not happened in the NAS.
Opening the dialogue to the attendees and contributing a NASA perspective, Ed Waggoner said that NASA ARMD has begun to address all of the issues mentioned today—societal needs, regulatory issues, infrastructure, scalability, multimodal systems, unmanned and tended vehicles, and autonomy. He noted how short the period of time has been between the first mention of package delivery by drone to opening the conversation about personal urban air mobility, and he believes this is a sign that the innovation cycle is restarting. He commented that NASA and the FAA are working together—better than ever before—to address these problems and concluded by saying that NASA is always working the margin between revenue and cost.
Steven Battel, ASEB member, asked if NASA’s test facilities are sufficient or if they need to be improved to meet coming opportunities. Langford said NASA’s facilities have historically been a critical part of establishing U.S. leadership in aviation, but today without restoring the ARMD budget, it will be difficult to find the right balance between supporting these facilities and the ability to start new programs. Responding to the need for the facilities, Langford said that yes, the existing facilities are critical, particularly to encourage the growth of new companies in the sector.
Hansman returned to the issue of engaging the new workforce, the shift in NASA to larger, team-based projects, and the agency’s risk-averse environment. He suggested that new mechanisms in NASA are needed to en-
able its engineers to take more risks as a small part of the portfolio, which would encourage new ideas within the agency. In short, it is necessary to inject more risk at a low level in the system to bring in the innovators.
Argrow asked why NASA portrays its supersonic flight demonstrator with a cockpit for the pilot, if autonomy is the way of the future. Langford pointed that there is a cultural bias and resistance in the need to maintain a crew member. Shin noted that the objective of the jet is not to demonstrate a complicated autonomous system but rather demonstrate low sonic boom.
Alonso then asked what the panelists suggest NASA should do to attract the autonomous system workforce that exists outside of aerospace. Langford said this should be an easy job because people love things that fly, but it will require a considerable effort by the community to nurture the interest in the youngest generation.
In response a question from Epstein on when he will be able to fly commercially from his home or office to the airport, Fernandes noted that such a vision will require operating costs to be sufficiently reduced so that the economic market exists—when that will happen is unknown. Kroo agreed, saying that, technically, much autonomous urban air mobility is possible, but the average person needs to be able to buy the vehicles, which must be reliable and safe—and how long it takes to get to that point will depend on a lot of investment.
The final question asked, by Lewis, was if industry is currently in a position in which innovation is stifled by antiquated regulations. Lappos responded that the only risk would happen when regulators stonewall—the FAA must be committed to allowing change and have the resources to institute that change. Langford contested, saying that the FAA has already stifled innovation. He used as evidence that UAVs were developed in China because in the United Staes every vehicle had to have an airworthiness certificate and a pilot. This is a typeset example of how regulation was a contributing factor to the United States losing quadrotor manufacturing, he suggested.
WORKSHOP SUMMARY DISCUSSION
In a final closing session and reflecting on the day’s discussion, Shin emphasized the following four points:
- NASA Aeronautics plays a unique role in building a research and development ecosystem that is equally accessible to universities and industry. He noted that, in his experience, NASA is still a leader in global aeronautics research, and this role is summarized by the words lead, collaborate, and leverage. He said we should capitalize on this strength. NASA’s role is to lead as a role model both in fostering open, honest communication and in technological development—even if that technology does not become commercially viable. However, of the words, Shin suggested that collaborate—with both industry partners and universities—deserves the largest concentration of investment. This collaboration defines the competitive advantage of the U.S. aviation sector. The collaborations should, in turn, be leveraged to maximize what partners, new and established, can learn from each other across the whole sector, he suggested.
- It is difficult to forecast what the aerospace industry will look like in 2050. It seems likely, given trends of increasing integration, that the lines between traditionally disparate business sectors, such as aviation and information technology, will be blurred. These sectors will be integrated within corporations, and successful business models will need to anticipate this increasing integration.
- NASA is struggling to attract the brightest talents of the incoming workforce and should transform itself. The agency is asking if it has become too difficult to enter the organization, and once inside does young talent find a risk-averse culture with no room for innovation. In an effort to create that space for innovation and enhance collaboration across all levels of talent, NASA ARMD has dedicated a tiny portion of its budget to the Convergent Aeronautics Solution project, which allows teams to take risks and demonstrate a new idea over accelerated time scales.
In closing summary comments, Epstein commented that the workshop has allowed us to discuss how value can be added to the nation’s aeronautical enterprise. He concluded the day by voicing his opinion on the following topics that he, personally, took away from the discussion:
- A major strength of the U.S. aviation system is the FAA’s regulatory system, supported by NASA’s depth of technical expertise, the combination of which enables change.
- We have to be aware of the concept of safety as a barrier to innovation.
- The importance of considering Revenue per Available Seat Mile (RASM) versus Cost per Available Seat Mile (CASM) as a driver of technological success in aviation was discussed a lot during the workshop.
- Two models were proposed for NASA’s role in the aeronautics sector: NASA invests in improving current technologies (incrementalism), or NASA invests in creating new technologies (innovation). Both, he said, are vital and of value, and NASA needs to consider both models when choosing how to allocate its resources.
- The role of NASA is less about specific technologies than it is about technology leadership and stimulation and the restoration of the innovation cycle.
In his final comments, Epstein noted that the present is as dynamic and exciting a time in aeronautics and aviation as it was when the ASEB was established 50 years ago. There is as much future for U.S. aeronautics as there has been in the past as we go forward to 2050.
DISCLAIMER: This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief has been prepared by Sarah Brothers and Michael Moloney as a factual summary of what occurred at the meeting. The committee’s role was limited to planning the event. The statements made are those of the individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all participants, the planning committee, or the National Academies. The Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed in draft form by Raymond S. Colladay of RC Space Enterprises, Inc., Thomas B. Irvine of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics, Karen A. Thole of Pennsylvania State University, and Ian A. Waitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the process.
PLANNING COMMITTEE: Alan H. Epstein Pratt & Whitney (Chair); Elizabeth R.Cantwell, Arizona State University (Vice Chair); Brian M. Argrow, University of Colorado, Boulder; Michael P. Delaney, The Boeing Company; Nicholas D. Lappos, Sikorsky; Mark J. Lewis, IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute; Valerie Manning, Airbus; Parviz Moin, Stanford University; Robie I. Samanta Roy, Lockheed Martin Corporation; Agam N. Sinha, ANS Aviation International. STAFF: Nathan Boll, Associate Program Officer Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board; Sarah Brothers, Associate Program Officer, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board; Michael H. Moloney, Director, Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board
SPONSORS: This workshop was supported by NASA and the 58-67 Fund for Space and Aeronautics (with support from the Lockheed Martin Corporation).
Watch the recorded webcast of the event at https://vimeo.com/album/4829980.
Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Aeronautics 2050: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.17226/25005.
Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences
Copyright 2018 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.