Innovation, Cooperation, And Prognostication

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Trying to predict what our technology will look like 10 or 20 years from now -- whether it's something as relatively simple as a new aviation fuel or as complex as a revamped electric grid that can run on renewable power -- seems to me about as hopeful an enterprise as trying to predict the ups and downs of the stock market. Advances in technology rely on an interacting web of complex variables, from volatile market forces to international politics to genius inspirations. It's all too chaotic and variable to allow for meaningful predictions.

This week's story from MIT got me thinking about this. I was surprised to learn that aircraft carrier crews still use little model airplanes with tail numbers painted on to help manage traffic on the deck of their zillion-dollar operation. You'd think there would be an app for that, but no. It looks like there will be soon, though, thanks to the work of the MIT students.

This is how complex problems get solved. Not with bolts from the blue, but with the plodding work of cadres of dedicated workers and creative thinkers working things out, inch by inch. I was witness to some of this process at AirVenture last month, when I sat in on an ASTM meeting about some modifications to LSA standards that have been in the works for a while. It was an incredibly painstaking process, about as exciting as watching paint dry. But everyone who wanted to be heard got their chance to participate, and while that's a slow and clunky way to get things done, it's not the worst way.

Where it all will lead is hard to say. Would we have guessed 20 or 30 years ago that we would have two-way videophones to carry in our pockets? Or unmanned aircraft that can fly themselves? I wouldn't venture to guess today how GA will solve its problem with finding a drop-in fuel to replace 100LL, or how we'll find ways to keep aviation fun and affordable. But I'll predict that if we keep plodding along, and give everyone a seat at the table, eventually we'll reach the future, and it will be something different than we ever expected.

Comments (36)

One thing about the future is certain: GA aircraft equipped with round mechanical "steam" gauges will still have them working just fine. Gee-wiz iPads and G1000 panels won't be working in 30 years. I bet that the carrier won't get rid of it's model flight deck either since simple mechanical is EMP proof...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 22, 2011 8:02 AM    Report this comment

Geez Mark, you come off as a borderline Luddite when it comes to modern instrumentation. I'm surprised you even own a computer. My steam gauges have failed twice in a mere 600 hours of flight time. This does not instill confidence in me when I'm in the clag. I would rather trust a solid state instrument with it's own internal battery back up any day.

Posted by: Ric Lee | August 22, 2011 9:55 AM    Report this comment

I said in 30 years, not today. Solid states are by nature "throw-away" technology. GA Owners of certified aircraft won't do a complete panel conversion from steam to full IFR glass because the costs of equipment (and certification) is more than the worth of the airplane itself. Steam will be here a long, long time.

As an exercise, try getting a 30 year old computer repaired to get some idea what it will be like getting replacement electronic parts 30 years in the future. Better yet, anything you buy today will be equivalent to a "Narco" in 30 years.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 22, 2011 11:08 AM    Report this comment

"I was surprised to learn that aircraft carrier crews still use little model airplanes with tail numbers painted on to help manage traffic on the deck of their zillion-dollar operation. You'd think there would be an app for that, but no."

Mary,

The main reason for that is that it works, and in combat when everything is going wrong (things always go wrong in combat), it would still work. (In combat, simple is good.) It doesn't need any regular upgrades or service packs -- just some sailors trained to push model airplanes across a scale-model of the deck, and anybody can look at that model from any angle and instantly tell what is happening.

There is also the issue of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) as Mark pointed out. Naval ships are for combat, and must be hardened against EMP. An EMP will do nothing to damage a physical model of the deck, while it would instantly fry an electronic version. (As it would all those glass cockpits in GA and airline aircraft.)

In a Mad Max world of nuclear explosions and solar storms, a Piper Cub with pneumatic/mechanical gauges would still be working. A Cirrus with a glass cockpit probably wouldn't.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 22, 2011 1:40 PM    Report this comment

Mark might be on to something in regards to obsolescence. Owners of early panel mount gps receivers can no longer get database updates. I'm betting we will see factory refurbished glass aircraft when the old stuff is obsolete-ala Cirrus & Eclipse

Posted by: Josh Johnson | August 22, 2011 9:25 PM    Report this comment

I was fortunate to spend 26 hours on the USS Enterprise at sea this summer. The CO said they are well on their way to UAV fighters, including trap landings on the carrier. Given that, it makes NO sense to be pushing little models around a mock deck to track aircraft position.

FYI, the IKE now has a SLIGHTLY upgraded version: people input the position of the planes on deck (and on the hangar deck) into a digital image; it's still like the old ouija board, but not quite so stone-age.

If you saw all the electronics on that carrier, you'd realize that the ouija board is the least of their worries for EMP. And they didn't even show us the "good stuff"!

Posted by: Donald Weber | August 22, 2011 11:30 PM    Report this comment

Every futurist gets it wrong. That's why history is a better teacher. History shows that the basics don't change all that much. You can bet that GA aircraft in 30 years will be a lot like GA aircraft today. That's why slide-in (throw away) avionics make sense. Fully integrated electronic panels are incredible, but ultimately doomed to obsolescence way before the airframe.

VanGrunsven gets it right; use appropriate technology to get the job done. All the gee-wiz stuff is not part of the package at all, but can be added on or removed as things do change.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | August 23, 2011 8:42 AM    Report this comment

I'm betting we will see factory refurbished glass aircraft when the old stuff is obsolete-ala Cirrus & Eclipse

Some, maybe, but when you look at the pattern of the market in recent years. To sustain themselves, manufacturers will need the next gen and the gen after that in glass, whatever that is to be. Remember, if was Cirrus that discovered that its market would--somewhat uniquely--buy every new version of the airplane it built.

Thus, when Perspective hit the market there was an absolute glut of recent model used SR22s on market. The downturn aggravated that. The only it reason it works for Eclipse is that those airplane they are refurbing were never finished in the first place.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | August 23, 2011 2:20 PM    Report this comment

Ric Lee, two words: planned obsolescence. See what's happening to the GNS 400/500 series? They're getting phased out and replaced by the GTN line. So Mark Fraser has a point. A good one too. You don't make money by building something that lasts forever. You make money by making people buy the thing over and over again because it will eventually fail or become obsolete. Who here runs a computer with a 8080 chip?

When you start adding computers into airplanes, eventually, you'll run into the same reasons why everyone keeps upgrading computers, iPhones, iPads, etc. You think Apple withholds technology in their products on accident? They're in it to make money. Just like everyone else. Except in aviation, it's pretty damn expensive for the consumer to upgrade avionics. Although I'm sure the G1000 has a bit of shelf life still. The question becomes at what point in time will some company produce a better/faster/cheaper product to torpedo the G1000. And when that day comes, how many will spend the tens of thousands to refit/upgrade? Steam gauges have been with us since the beginning of aviation, and it's tried and true.

Posted by: William Wang | August 23, 2011 3:38 PM    Report this comment

As an engineer and physicist I am will go out on a limb. Just as there is a dawning awakening that things are not as we we have been lead to believe, and that list includes our government, our financial system, our legal system, our educational system and certainly not least, our energy paradigm; the people who cast off the blinders of the orthodoxy will discover that lots of solutions have been "invented" that were not allow to be brought to the market. As one Dr. from the university of Miami medical school has written, there were 12 proven cures for cancer in the last century that he is aware of. From Nicola Tesla to Edwin Gray to Stanley Meyer, the creators of energy technologies that threaten the oil cartels have been suppressed, often violently. I will predict that an electric airplane will fly around the world non-stop, with no fuel whatsoever in the next five years. And you can take that to the bank.

Posted by: Ed Wahler | August 23, 2011 9:29 PM    Report this comment

Look at the history of avionics even before glass panes.Narco, King, and now Garmin dominated GA avionics in their day and follow the same business plan. Those OEMs that did not continue to invest and reinvent themselves are left in the dust of the visionaries.

A new generation of avionics has a 10 year production life followed by a 10 year support period. Then local shops with experienced technicians and access to parts continued to keep these other units alive for a time span after that.

Where are shops today to keep the King 170 radios going. They are fewer and farther apart. The same will happened even sooner the the Garmin 430/530. Why, because these units go back to Garmin for repairs, plus where will you find a compatible FAA approved Intel processor that is the heart of these units after 2015-2020.

As far as a factory OEM avionics upgrade to G1000 units just remember what happened to the early preWAAS G1000 aircraft. There was and is no upgrade path to WAAS other than getting a new aircraft.

Yes, eventually there will be some type of replacement market but that has yet to sort itself our.

Posted by: Charles Lloyd | August 24, 2011 7:51 AM    Report this comment

My,my,my; how the world today lets greed drive it! We are so busy grabbing the dollar; We can't see tomorrow clearly. We've stomped all over yesterday. Why don't we shut-off all that fancy electronic nonsense and enjoy the simple, skilled pleasures and adventures of just flying!?

Posted by: Darryl Bostick | August 24, 2011 10:17 AM    Report this comment

One really interesting thing about our current aviation engine technologies, is that the engine makes it's power from heating air.

The heat comes from liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

What if, the heat came from something else? What if the heat came from laser activated nuclear energy, from an earth mineral, built into the structure of the engine?

What if all moguls, despots, egotistical politicians, lose their death-hold salacious, lechorous grip on people, and life, and flying, can be enjoyed by all?

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 24, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

"What if, the heat came from something else? ...from an earth mineral, built into the structure of the engine?"

Why Ron, it sounds as though you are talking about dilithium crystals. Just pop a handful of those in a dilithium crystal chamber with a columnar "swirl chamber," and the stars will be yours.

Personally, I'm banking on a refinement of the turbo-encabulator principle, powered by standard hyrdocoptic prefabulated amulite.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 24, 2011 11:46 PM    Report this comment

"What if, the heat came from something else? ...from an earth mineral, built into the structure of the engine?"

Why Ron, it sounds as though you are talking about dilithium crystals. Just pop a handful of those in a dilithium crystal chamber with a columnar "swirl chamber," and the stars will be yours.

Personally, I'm banking on a refinement of the turbo-encabulator principle, powered by standard hyrdocoptic prefabulated amulite.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 24, 2011 11:47 PM    Report this comment

A glider, Cub, or ultralight will fly just fine and provide more joy without a complex and expensive aviaonics system. If you do manage to get far enough away from the field, and portable GPS will provide more than enough information for you.

That said,the newer solid-state instrument packages designed for the LSA/Experimental market do provide good reliability, without being large, heavy, expensive or overly complex. They seem to provide the utility/reliability vs. cost ratio necessary for sucessful use for this group, but are still not necessary for a great flying experience.

The question that needs to be answered is this: "Does this system improve reliability, reduce cost, and add to the joy of flight?"

An expensive, complex, and un-replaceable avionics system would get a solid "No" on this question from many people, especially for those that fly only for the joy of flying. Unfortunately, that's what we get with certified aircraft, which is yet another reason that Experimental aircraft are the fastest growing aviation segement.@

Posted by: Scott Thomason | August 25, 2011 8:10 AM    Report this comment

Mark and William, you make valid arguments on solid state avionics. One other point I would like to make on the longevity of said products, how many of us will still be flying in 30 years?

I would like to be flying in my 90's but the odds are against it. My Garmin 430 will probably last as long as I'm flying, provided Garmin keeps up their support for it.

Good comments from everyone.

Posted by: Ric Lee | August 25, 2011 9:58 AM    Report this comment

""...provided Garmin keeps up their support for it."

That is the key. An 8-track tape player from the 1970s still works, but no one makes carts for them anymore. A 30-year old Garmin 430 may work just fine, but I'll bet a dollar to a donut there will be no support for it in 30 years. Probably not even 10 years from now.

On the other hand, a J-3 Cub or C-172 with pneumatic/mechanical flight instruments will work as well 30 years from now as it does today -- or it did 30 years ago.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 25, 2011 10:59 AM    Report this comment

Gary Dikkers:

Actually, I was talking about Thorium. A sugar-cube sized portion of it provides enough energy to power a vehicle for the lifetime of the vehicle.

Google it, and desist with mockery!

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 12:21 PM    Report this comment

As for steam gauges, how ludicrous! Pull out your smartphone, it has more capacity than NASA did, when they put a man on the moon! It can fly an airplane too, or just inform the pilot of all important parameters, from which way is up, to weight and balance, and everything in-between.

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 12:28 PM    Report this comment

As for steam gauges, how ludicrous! Pull out your smartphone, it has more capacity than NASA did, when they put a man on the moon! It can fly an airplane too, or just inform the pilot of all important parameters, from which way is up, to weight and balance, and everything in-between.

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 12:30 PM    Report this comment

“Actually, I was talking about Thorium. A sugar-cube sized portion of it provides enough energy to power a vehicle for the lifetime of the vehicle. “ Ah…unfortunately not true. Please delete the words “it provides” and substitute something on the order of “it encapsulates” or even better “which could, if it were accessible, provide”.

The energy bound up within thorium, as in uranium or any other radioactive element, has to be extracted in some manner, most practically via a nuclear reactor. I know this is probably only a tiny detail barely worthy of note, but it is good to remember that a nuclear reactor is slightly larger and slightly heavier than that sugar cube sized chunk of thorium.

Although obviously there are millions out there who refuse to accept it, I can assure you that in the real world of physics, ultimately there is no free lunch.

Posted by: John Wilson | August 25, 2011 1:58 PM    Report this comment

"Development of Tiny Thorium Reactors Could Wean the World Off Oil In Just Five Years"

Take a look at what's happening with thorium: http://terralab.tripod.com/id14.html

Not with Obama's and Bloomberg's though!

Perhaps a sane, intelligent species of human could pursue this?

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 3:21 PM    Report this comment

Sorry! Avweb doesn't take website URLs!

So, how to convey? Try teralab.tripod.com, or just google "laser thorium" and hunt around,

People are making electrical generators powered by thorium, and, I read that red-laser light shrinks thorium atoms, releasing gargantuan amounts of heat.

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 3:27 PM    Report this comment

Two "r's" in terralab, folks.

I'm surprised how many aviator's are thoroughly "stuck in the mud", but over-regulation spawns that, so, perhaps it's to be expected?

Of course, I love flying, so, I'll even share this, with all the "stuffed shirts"!

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

Ron,

There are three fissile elements, thorium being one of the three. A tiny thorium reactor powering a plane or car may be possible, but think of the implications of a thorium-powered airplane flying over people's heads, or a thorium-powered car driving past houses and schools.

We are going to need a much different political and risk-assessment environment than we have today before that will happen. How would a proposal for a thorium-powered airplane flying over our cities ever pass an environmental impact study?

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 25, 2011 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Tin foil! Tin foil stops particle radiation, from thorium. Gamma radiation, no, but as an entity in this universe, you are constantly being bombarded with gamma ray radiation.

It's the super-hot, sub-atomic particles, that damage protoplasm! Particle radiation is very weak with thorium, so that tin foil is more than adequate protection to block the particles.

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 3:48 PM    Report this comment

Ron,

You miss my point. It's not the radioactivity from thorium that would cause it to fail an environmental review, but that thorium is one of the three fissile elements that can be used to make a fission nuclear bomb. Not all isotopes of thorium fission easily, but the idea of airplanes flying overhead powered by a potential nuclear bomb fuel is not going to go very far in Congress, in the Homeland Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or a couple of other government agencies we probably don't even know exist.

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 25, 2011 4:43 PM    Report this comment

It is almost impossible to make a bomb out of thorium. To do so, requires an immense amount of work and energy.

We need to change congress, from the current occupying "Wieners" and Barney Franks that rip-off American workers, and replace them with true American representatives, who put USA first, instead of lining their pockets first, with foreign interest money, including Saudi money.

Yes, we are in the dark about the horrid anti-American dealings of our current politicians, but with some prudence, we could change that.

The stealing and "Enviro" thefts of our greedy politicians and moguls, are becoming more apparent, let them submit to justice, and let the pursuit of happiness by our people, carry on!

Homeland security, is a misnomer, bullying and intimidating the American citizen, who should be a free man, not a communist lackey of the Obama, Saudi-supported administration!

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 25, 2011 5:47 PM    Report this comment

Here is a quote from one of the many websites on thorium:

" After World War II, a strategic decision was undertaken by industrialized nations to pursue uranium-driven energy instead, because its by-product – plutonium – could be weaponized. By contrast, it is almost impossible to make a bomb out of thorium."

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 26, 2011 2:15 AM    Report this comment

"By contrast, it is almost impossible to make a bomb out of thorium."

"almost"

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 26, 2011 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Interesting to note the bulk of the web info on thorium is generated by an outfit called Laser Power Systems and mostly centers around trying to snare investors. The web pages are long on vaporous & unsupported statements, various half truths and much outright BS and are, of course, devoid of any firm statement that any laser-thorium device generating more power than it consumes has ever been constructed & demonstrated.

As one reviewer of the subject commented, "We aren't holding our breath."

I may be a stick-in-the-mud, but personally I ain't gonna invest in Laser Power Systems.

Posted by: John Wilson | August 26, 2011 10:56 AM    Report this comment

One of the most utilitarian tools we have, the knife, is also considered a weapon. And, the garrote, has never been banned.

It's the nefarious wielder, that should be banned.

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 26, 2011 11:46 AM    Report this comment

I'll be looking forward to the laser-thorium steam car, in two years!

But then, I held out hope for DARPA's hypersonic nuke delivery system, and that has mysteriously disappeared, probably on the bottom of the ocean, with many old boats!

But vaporize, yes, vaporize, is the keyword here!

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 26, 2011 11:58 AM    Report this comment

"It's the nefarious wielder, that should be banned."

What? Are you saying the pilot of a thorium-powered airplane would be the culprit and should be banned?

Posted by: Gary Dikkers | August 26, 2011 12:26 PM    Report this comment

No, vaporized!

Posted by: Ron Brown | August 26, 2011 12:35 PM    Report this comment

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