How real is the hypersonic aircraft revolution?

CNN  — 

We live in an era of fast technological change: self-driving cars, drones, artificial intelligence.

Yet the tube-shaped subsonic airliners we keep flying on wouldn’t look out of place in the 1960s.

Take, for example, the Boeing 737.

A 50-year-old design that remains one of the workhorses of the airline industry.

And going strong: Its latest iteration, the Boeing 737 MAX is expected to enter service next year.

To be fair, although from the outside it may look structurally similar to its earlier versions, decades of cumulative improvements have made the airliner of today a vastly more sophisticated, efficient and reliable machine.

Aircraft-making is an extremely capital-intensive activity and, given the financial and technical risks that launching an entirely new model entails, it’s understandable that the industry prefers to keep milking proven concepts.

But how long before the current generation of airliners reaches its limits?

From electric propulsion to hypersonics, from NASA to private entrepreneurs, the quest for new, truly groundbreaking, aircraft concepts is on.

And it has the potential to forever change our idea of air travel.

High-voltage innovation

Airbus, for example, has unveiled its future aircraft concept.

This isn’t exactly a new aircraft program, but a depiction of what would be possible if all of the futuristic technologies envisaged by Airbus could be combined to create the ideal airliner.

Across the Atlantic, Boeing is also working, together with NASA, on a number of futurist aircraft concepts within the framework of the New Aviation Horizons initiative.

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The SUGAR program (that stands for Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research) has come up with some truly innovative aerodynamic and propulsion solutions.

These include an aircraft with eye-catching truss-braced wings and an hybrid gas-electric propulsion system fed by liquefied natural gas.

The search for new modes of propulsion is particularly important, as aviation remains one of the few major industries where replacing fossil fuels remains an unresolved challenge.

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Biofuels may offer a stopgap solution, as they can be adapted to fit current engine technology and supply infrastructure.

But it’s electrically powered flight that’s captured the attention of a handful of visionaries.

It’s a technology still in its infancy, but one that benefits from the enthusiasm and resourcefulness of entrepreneurs, not unlike the mavericks of the early days of aviation.

By competing with each other to break the next record, they contribute to the advancement of the aeronautical science.

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In 2015, as the long-winged Solar Impulse tried to circumnavigate the globe on solar power, teams were vying to be the first to cross the English Channel on an electric-powered aircraft.

This is an artist's concept of a possible Low Boom Flight Demonstration Quiet Supersonic Transport (QueSST) X-plane design. The award of a preliminary design contract is the first step towards the possible return of supersonic passenger travel -- but this time quieter and more affordable.
NASA says it will build quiet supersonic passenger jet
00:48 - Source: CNN

French scientist and former yachtsman Raphael Dinelli is also preparing a solo crossing of the Atlantic later this year on a hybrid biofuel-electric light aircraft called Eraole.

His plane derives part of its energy from solar power. If successful, a derivative of Eraole might soon be serially produced for the private aviation market.

Beyond the boom

Electric and hybrid aircraft will make flying greener, but what about speed?