Sowing the seeds of tomorrow's aircraft

Planes flying in formation
Image caption In the future, planes might fly in formation, "like migrating birds"

The future of flying will be organically grown, with seats made from plants and fuel made from oils from seeds or algae.

There will be "no more non-renewable materials, like metal or plastic" in the cabin of tomorrow's aircraft.

Flying will be the answer to scarce resources on the ground; by travelling through the air rather than by road or rail, the ground can be "left for farming and preserving biodiversity".

Meanwhile, in cities "vertical take-off will be a way of saving space".

All this might sound like the aviation dreams of children fond of science fiction.

And up to a point that is exactly what it is.

This vision of the future of flying was hammered out by European plane maker Airbus following interviews with 10,000 people - many of them from the generations that will be flying in years to come.

"Don't forget, the people who will fly tomorrow are those that use Facebook and Twitter today," says Airbus head of engineering Charles Champion.

"It's about thinking outside the box."

Major challenges

Image caption Charles Champion mixes fact and fiction, science and dreams, to create an exciting vision of the future

One might have expected guffaws from the crowd of journalists who had been summoned to The Future By Airbus event at the Greenwich Observatory in London - chosen, Airbus executives say, because it is the world's reference point for time and thus a good place to think about the future of aviation.

But instead of being met with overwhelming cynicism, many were in awe.

Sure, the event was more Tomorrow's World than The News, as one commented, but it was also an inspiring response to the challenges facing the aviation industry.

And there are many - ranging from ever-stricter emissions and noise regulation to increasing fuel and resources scarcity.

The industry also faces huge challenges linked to overcrowding in the skies as air traffic grows five-fold over the next few decades.

And the airlines and the plane builders will have to serve increasingly demanding customers, who make up a global population that is set to almost double by 2050 to more than nine billion people.

'Good starting point'

Cheap, efficient and green are the punters' criteria for tomorrow's flights, according to Mr Champion, and no, they are not prepared to stop flying.

Image caption Many of the Airbus ideas are based on feedback from young people

So the aviation industry has to respond by taking into account environmental considerations, and they must milk technological advances in society to ensure flight in the future is sustainable, he reasons.

As such, the concept plane and cabin that Airbus has developed should be seen as a bank of thoughts rather than as an aircraft developed to go into production.

"If you want to create the next generation aircraft, then this is not it," says Bruno Saint-Jalmes, head of creative design and concepts.

Airbus has a habit of mixing up technological advances that are perfectly feasible already with those that people dream about - but seem unlikely to ever happen - such as flying cars that help "utilise the third dimension" in congested city streets.

The company is also unclear about which of these technologies it is actively investing in, and which ones it would like to put to good use - if only someone else happened to come up with solutions to the question "how?".

Consequently, the Airbus concept is often confusing.

"But," insists Mr Saint-Jalmes, "it is a good starting point."

Biologically inspired

The Airbus concept plane is built using new, strong and light-weight composite materials.

Image caption Airbus thinks algae grown in the sea could be used to make biofuel for planes

It comes with optionally transparent ceilings, seats and carpets made from self-cleaning and self-repairing materials, furniture equipped with artificial intelligence so it can change shape to suit individuals' needs, and holograms projected onto walls that are so advanced that "the virtual world will be indistinguishable from the real".

Energy harvesting is another concept onboard; passenger's body heat is used to power gadgets in the cabin, so everyone onboard becomes a "fuel cell" in their own right.

Then there is the idea of biomimicry, or biologically inspired engineering, aimed at copying nature in mechanical objects.

This has resulted in eagle-inspired winglets, velvety coatings on aircraft landing gear mimicking the noise-reducing downy feathers on owls' legs, or wings that naturally twist and turn in flight like those of butterflies.

'Like migrating birds'

Image caption Airbus thinks future flights could be 'free', paid for with casino earnings

Blue-sky thinkers at Airbus, led by Mr Saint-Jalmes, have not limited themselves to engineering challenges on their own, however.

The logistics of flying could be as important as the shape, size and weight of the planes in the sky, they believe.

For instance, currently each plane is flying within a very large, imaginary "safety sphere", to maintain safe distances between airborne aircraft.

As the skies become more crowded, technology could be used to enable the size of such "safety spheres" to be reduced - or rather, to allow planes to fly closer to each other.

Indeed, tomorrow's planes could perhaps fly in formation, "like migrating birds", Airbus predicts.

Airport logistics could also be improved, for instance by allowing passengers to board pods in their own time - pods that are then swiftly loaded into airframes that can be flown - the way ready-loaded containers are loaded onto ships.

Flying palaces

The killjoy question of economics dampens the atmosphere somewhat during the question-and-answer session at the Greenwich party, with Mr Champion having to acknowledge that "we've got an airline business, and quite rightly, these people need to make money".

"We have different business plans for different airlines," he says, explaining how tomorrow's planes could be separated into zones.

"Technology-connected work areas at the back, relaxing zones at the front - complete with seats that monitor your health or massage your muscles - and play areas in the middle, where passengers can play virtual golf or hang out in self-cleaning bars that Mr Champion says can be used in order to socialise".

Sounds pricey, but not necessarily so, according to Airbus.

The company envisages a future where vast, flying palaces or cruise ships in the skies offer free flights, funded by casinos or restaurant earnings onboard.

Such a future where you will no longer have to go to Las Vegas or Macau, but where they will come to you, may seem titillating or preposterous, depending on your point of view.

But it is a vision about which few will be indifferent.

This year's Paris Air Show will take place at Le Bourget exhibition centre on the outskirts of Paris from 20 to 26 June 2011.

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