More on the Future of Aviation

23 July 2010

Friday


After having recently written a couple of posts about the future of aviation — The Space Age and Addendum to “The Space Age” — I was interested today to find a recent article from Newsweek, The Flying Prius (I encourage you to read the article, which includes many links of interest), which touched on many of the same issues that I discussed: the need to address social, political, and environmental issues in the coming generations of aircraft.

Just as Clausewitz said that war is the pursuit of policy by other means, and in so saying implied that politics is the pursuit of war by other means, so too aviation is the pursuit of politics by other means, which implies that politics (at least in some of its aspects) is aviation by other means. In other words, all human life is political, and the infrastructure we build for ourselves is pervasively politicized. More than two thousand years ago Aristotle opened his Politics by making the observation that “Man is a political animal,” and while the Greeks of his time were perhaps more politicized than other peoples (they gave us democracy, after all, as well as most of what is superior in Western civilization), his observation remains true to this day. Moreover, man as a political animal, homo politicus, is also man the builder, homo faber, and all that he builds is in turn invested with all that he is. Political man builds a political world. What anthropologists and sociologists now call “the built environment” is also a political environment.

Beyond the politics of aviation, there are also the concerns of technology. I have several times discussed aviation technical marvels like the SR-71 Blackbird, and achievements like these are truly remarkable. However, there is a tendency, in our age of high tech this and high tech that, to think that many of our technologies are more or less spent. I wrote about this in my posts on stalled technologies. And technologies do stall, that is to say, they develop to the point at which they enter a plateau, and further developments are incremental rather than exponential. But the important thing about this is not so much that most technologies eventually stall, as that human inventiveness and ingenuity at exaptation ultimately turn to other technologies in order to continue technological development. If this were not the case, we would certainly have the finest stone tools in the universe, but we discontinued the development of stone tools when we found that we could do more with other materials.

In other words, despite our dizzying and dazzling high technology, we have a long way to go yet. We can still have lighter, more powerful, and more fuel efficient engines and airframes. There is enormous room for improvement. The author of The Flying Prius story writes:

…one of the MIT proposals is for the Hybrid Wing Body H-Series, an enormous flying wing, and NASA actually has been test-flying a model of something similar, the X-48B, since 2006. At first glance they look like they’re straight out of 1938. But the operative phrase here is “at first glance.” Basic principles of lift and propulsion are immutable, so certain design features keep coming back. What’s really new is just about everything else that’s likely to go into making the next generation—indeed, the next several generations—of planes: the composites for the bodies; the engines that propel them; the computers that steer them; and, most important, the new economic, environmental, and political imperatives of the 21st century.

In all of the areas of technology mentioned above there are exciting developments that suggest ways forward to the future of aviation.

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