The Future of Aerospace
I admit it, I am a Trekkie. Yeah, Star Wars was OK, but I always preferred the original Star Trek. Watching this show in my younger years, combined with seeing nearly every single NASA rocket launch and the first moon landing triggered my imagination and interest. In fact, I credit this for leading me into a career in Aerospace. I’m amazed when I look back since the first moon landing how much technology has changed including some astonishing things in the aerospace field. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I really thought that when I reached my late 50’s, we would be living like the Jetsons (a popular cartoon series in the 60’s). But, so far a flying car in every household has eluded us.
Let’s not discount how far we’ve come. Can you believe that before December 1903 (only 115 years ago), powered flight wasn’t even possible. Today, powered flight is so much different than even what the Wright brothers would have dreamed. Have you ever noticed how science fiction leads to science reality? It’s not hard to see why. Invention comes through imagination. For example, before we ever put a man in space, we imagined that we could put a man on the moon. Within 10 years, Neil Armstrong took that famous first step. What does the future hold? Perhaps we should use our imagination!
Personal aircraft (Jetson style) – This isn’t far in the future. In fact, some have already ventured into this business. With the development of improved electrical controls and monitoring systems, it’s only a matter of time before “flying cars” will be a possibility in every home. I believe that the evolving drone technology will develop the means for Jetson type cars. I recently bought a small drone for private use. It’s amazing how easy it is to fly. I’m impressed with the control technology and collision avoidance system, found even in this simple system. With improvements in light weight composite materials including improved manufacturing costs and efficient electrical power systems, eventually I think personal aircraft will replace the automobile like the automobile replaced the horse. Perhaps the biggest holdup will be the regulatory system including the certification of the vehicle and traffic control.
Hypersonic large commercial transport – Today, the technology is still emerging. However, as engine technology continues to evolve and more material advances come into play, it is possible that hypersonic flights where the aircraft leaves the atmosphere will be possible. This could make travel to anywhere in the world a short flight. Who knows what the next step will be to take this same technology into space.
Self-healing aircraft – Many years ago, I participated on a team that was working with Texas A&M University to study structural systems that could detect failures. The goal was to identify structural anomalies before they became significant issues. As a part of that discussion, there was a group looking at new materials that would actually heal themselves. So, if a component was cracked, the structure would recognize the stress concentration and initiate its own repair.
What else can we imagine? Perhaps nuclear power will be developed for space and aircraft. It’s clear that power plant systems will evolve. As the technology for lighter systems becomes available, perhaps nuclear power will become practical for aerospace. As we venture outside the atmosphere, manufacturing in space may be closer than you think. Reusable launch vehicles will become more practical. Travel to a colonized moon could become commercially viable making local manufacturing a necessity. Maybe the next great material will be found on another planet? Will we ever say “beam me up Scotty.” Who knows? Just a few decades ago, no one would have thought a man would walk on the moon.
Paul V. Kumler, P.E. is president of KTM Solutions, an engineering company that services the aerospace and large scale manufacturing industries. In addition to aero structures engineering services, KTM Solutions designs and builds tooling supporting a broad clientele and various industries. The company is headquartered in Greer, South Carolina with remote offices in Charleston, South Carolina. Mr. Kumler serves in several volunteer roles including the SC Aerospace Advisory Board. Mr. Kumler, a professional engineer, is licensed in Louisiana, South Carolina, Texas and Washington. He is married to Ginger A. Kumler and has two grown children and two grand children.