Imagine taking a trip from New York to Tokyo in just 90min; boarding a scramjet-powered reusable launch vehicle to explore space; deploying unmanned vehicles to patrol our cities; travelling door-to-door via tiltrotor; or zapping an incoming missile with a high-energy laser. The boundaries of aviation are expanding. The aerospace industry at large, having been swelled and transformed in its first century of development by two world wars, by the Cold War and a space race and then by an explosion in air travel, is at a critical moment in its history. Reshaped by a succession of economic crises affecting civil and military markets over the final quarter of the 20th century, the industry enters its second century of development braced for one of its most significant transformations yet.

No longer driven by technology and performance criteria alone, aerospace companies worldwide are challenged by ever-spiralling investment costs, forcing them to gear research and development funds to win-win projects and markets, to drive up manufacturing efficiency to unprecedented levels and relentlessly pursue risk-sharing partners across the globe. If the financial squeeze does not halt technological progress by an industry increasingly shaped by highly cost-conscious civil and military markets, it will certainly steer it in more conservative directions. Equally, though, it will challenge companies to apply their creativity and innovation to generating higher levels of engineering efficiency, improving both performance and reliability.

But for those who think this paints a sorry picture of a mature, highly cyclical industry caught out again and again by its own failure to face up to the true nature of its market, think again. Two decades of downsizing, consolidation and restructuring have stripped away the outdated and unwanted to hatch a newly regenerated industry more attuned to the new market realities.

As one chief executive puts it: "Would it be more fun to work in an industry which produces 20 prototypes a year as it once did? Yes, probably it would, but that's life! On the other hand, what we produce now is far less hit and miss because they are engineered to vastly greater standards than they once were."

As readers of this souvenir edition of Flight International will find, for an industry forever subject to the spoils of fickle markets, to the rollercoaster nature of the global economy and to ever-impenetrable minefields of policy and regulation, aerospace can never be accused of a lack of imagination and resilience, especially when it comes to technological endeavour.

What will also become apparent as the pages are turned is the depth and breadth of the technologies and products under development or being explored and the new skills which a truly multinational industry is nurturing to achieve competitive success. For the expansion of the aviation industry into the realms of information technology, with datalinking and networking as the glue around which platforms ranging from airliners to unmanned fighters and space robots interconnect, is creating a new kind of aerospace engineer for the 21st century. They and other future generations of aviation professionals can look ahead, too, to a business sector with structures and cultures transcending frontiers on every plane as aerospace companies prepare for new levels of globalisation.

Technology suite

Flight into the Future does not set out to be speculative or predictive. Our intention is to open the year 2000 with an informative, but mind-popping vista of the suite of technologies which promise to be influential well into the new century.

The opening ultra-efficient airliners section charts a future for airliner development driven by end-of-the-century environmental, safety and efficiency needs. These targets are themselves conjuring up a host of innovative ideas and technology developments with fly-by-wire controls, composite structures and fuel-efficient jet engines driving subsonic air travel for the new century.

As smart electronic control over every aspect of an aircraft proves to be the ultimate endeavour for an industry driven by the imperative to improve performance, efficiency and safety, other frontiers will be challenged. Developments in adaptive aerodynamics, reconfigurable flight controls and all-electric aircraft technologies are explored in these pages, as is the flying wing.

In the world of propulsion, pollution-free fuels are investigated and a new age looms for the "green, quiet" engine as more punitive environmental regulations begin to bite. Engine designs will drive developments, with the ultra-efficient turbofan sparking a host of new smart, green subsonic engines for regional jets and airliners and quiet, supersonic engines for future airliners and business jets, fighter aircraft and reusable launch vehicles. Smart combustion control and all-electric "thinking" engines that optimise their own performance in flight and minimise emissions are in view, plus a host of technologies promising to transform previous levels of reliability and dramatically cut maintenance costs.

Air traffic control infrastructure developments and communications and navigation technology will play no small part either in helping to solve the efficiency imperative in air travel. The "most important advance in air traffic control since radar" envisages a leap into the future with expert systems and fuzzy reasoning technology to "intelligise" and simplify the air traffic controller's decision-making. Internet/intranet and datalink technologies have revolutionised terrestrial communications and will do the same in the airborne environment.

Fast-forwarding to 2050, and pilotless airliners will be approaching acceptability as the pace of military-inspired technology gathers momentum. Until then, developments in "intuitive" displays for the glass cockpit will provide a quantum leap in situational awareness, accelerating improvements in air safety. As interactive cockpit/crew technologies spring into the 21st century airliner, military pilots are testing man-machine interface scenarios that are but a few steps away from a fully automated fighter cockpit. Voice recognition, eye tracking and even physiological monitoring by computers to evaluate the pilot's mental and physical state in flight point the way to new levels of mission effectiveness.

Accompanying manned combat aircraft will be a new generation of unmanned systems - the unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). A concept which has been experimented with for over 20 years and still viewed with scepticism at the turn of the century despite the Star Trek-era predictions, the UCAV is firmly on the wishlists of sophisticated air forces. Meanwhile, unlimited commercial usage beckons for the unmanned aircraft as high altitude, long endurance systems promise to act as communications relay platforms or environmental monitoring vehicles.

Door-to-door air travel

A far cry from the pioneering helicopters of the 1930s, the future of vertical lift technology has in prospect new concepts that will transform the usage of rotorcraft over the next 50 years. From tiltrotors to tiltwings to all-weather and compound helicopters, the opening of the 21st century marks a dawn of a new age for door-to-door air travel as well as new levels of operational flexibility for armed forces. In the fixed-wing arena, the first supersonic short take-off/vertical landing fighter is in prospect.

But if a tiltrotor does not quite fit the bill for the business traveller, perhaps a supersonic business jet just might. The "personal" aircraft is coming of age, thanks to the "rent a business jet" philosophy spawned by fractional ownership. Wherever you need to get to and whenever you need to arrive, a host of new faster and longer range jets are planned. But another revolution is under way at the personal aircraft level. As light jet-powered aircraft become more affordable and planned developments in the general aviation infrastructure open up possibilities for explosive growth, new easier and safer personal aircraft look set to challenge other forms of travel.

But the ultimate frontier in air travel in the 21 century is in the realm of space transport. From the springboard of hypersonic missile developments loom ever-more-realistic prospects of using spaceplanes to reach routinely into orbit. To help space travel overcome cost barriers and breach new boundaries, space-based research is now focused on intelligent unmanned spacecraft - including robotic planetary explorers which change their configuration according to the task they have to perform or obstacles to overcome.

Aerospace is fuelled by advances in technology, and if the dynamics of the marketplace have slowed the pace of recent development, there are technologies on the horizon that could yet revolutionise the industry. These include the long-established laser, which is making new inroads into military planning and aerospace manufacturing thanks to developments on diode-pumped solid-state lasers. Then there are micro-electromechanical systems - MEMS - that promise to be as revolutionary as the microchip. Imagine having the ability to sense and control the flow of air over an aircraft or through an engine in real time. Not only new efficiencies, but totally new configurations could result from the MEMS-enabled technology of micro adaptive flow control.

Confronted with the panoply of technologies featured in these pages, it could be possible to forget human factors. But industry has not, and as it enters a new century it is defining new requirements for the engineer of the future. The power of computer is such that trend towards specialisation that resulted from the increasing complexity of aircraft is being reversed. The future aerospace engineer will be multi-disciplinary and in multinational teams linked by a seamless, digital, virtual product development environment.

What follows is not speculation. It is not science fiction. It is not prediction. It is a snapshot of an industry at the start of a new century and an effort to encapsulate the vision of that industry as it looks towards a future filled with opportunities and challenges.

Source: Flight International