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An Unleashed Look at Aviation
By: Jim Hodges

Longer lives, and the health to enjoy them. Rail competition for aviation. Indifference to global warming. Energy issues. No energy issues.

Families' standards of living crashing. Thirty-five years of prosperity after another five years of economic angst.

A group of futurists – and one who calls himself a "presentist" -- opened "Aviation Unleashed" at the Hampton Roads Convention Center on Monday with forecasts that at once supported those of each other, then clashed.

Aviation Unleashed.

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The Parrot flying AR Drone that can be flown using an iPhone or iPad captivated young and old at the Aviation Unleashed conference. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"Those of us in this room are flying at warp speed into a future of who knows?" said John Petersen, president of the Arlington Institute, in a Monday keynote address to the assembly, which is co-sponsored by the National Institute of Aerospace and NASA Langley. "All I can do is paint possibilities. There's nothing predictive at all."

But a panel led by Dennis Bushnell, NASA Langley’s chief scientist, was not at all reluctant to predict tomorrows that include personal autonomous or remotely piloted air vehicles and a society that embraces travel to places in a world that is opened up by the Internet. A catalyst will be "roads that cost as much as a small war, with casualties that are along the same scale, about 40,000-50,000 a year," Bushnell said.

The unmanned air vehicle movement probably will be led by airplanes that move freight, "air will need new, innovative ways to compete with truck and rail," said Peter Norvig, director of research for Google, who teleconferenced into the session and called himself a "presentist."

Norvig added that future is arriving faster than anyone believed possible offering statistics: There were 0.02 cell phones per capita in the U.S. in 1990, 0.89 in 2008; and 9 percent of the U.S. had Internet capability in 1995, 76 percent in 2008.

"The time frame between ideas and applications has shortened," agreed Marvin Cetron, founder of Forecasting International, who added that "technology will soon make pilots obsolete."

He also forecast autonomously piloted aircraft will deliver freight by 2020 and passengers by 2025-30.

Bushnell forecast a $40,000 personal air vehicle and an international market for such vehicles approaching $1 trillion a year, "which would solve the U.S. balance of payments problem."

But not, he added, unless the limitations of the nation’s Air Traffic Control system can overcome an unwillingness to integrate UAVs into airspace with human-piloted airplanes.

"What's holding us back is the Air Traffic Control system way beyond (its next generation), which won't handle the scheduled airline growth, much less the personal air vehicles," said Bushnell. "NextGen won’t allow UAVs into controlled airspace, and (the departments of Homeland Security and Defense) require UAVs in controlled airspace to defend a nation going forward."

Aviation Unleashed.

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Ron Mathis, chief of design for Edison2, the "very light car." Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Bushnell added a prophecy of a diminished societal standard of living because "The way we are living on the planet, we are short 50 percent of a planet."

To sustain our lifestyle, eventually we would need three planets, Bushnell said.

William Halal, a former engineer with NASA’s Apollo program and currently professor emeritus of management, technology and innovation at George Washington University, put dates on some of the more significant future events, based on his TechCast project.

Humans will live, on average, to age 100 by 2033, Halal said, and part of the reason will be the discovery of a cure for cancer by 2023.

"Most major cities will be connected by high-speed rail by 2031," he said, adding that trains that travel at 300 mph between major cities "will be a serious competitor to aviation."

Also, Halal said, "30 percent of flights will be by private aircraft by 2026. Small aircraft flooding the skies is a little disturbing … I think it is an obstacle. But I suppose this can be overcome."

Halal added that 30 percent of long-range flights will be in hypersonic planes by 2028 and credited NASA's work with "scramjet" engines as a catalyst.

Space tourism is upon us, Halal said. The first orbital flights with tourists will be by 2014, "and that could change our whole conception of space," he said.

His on-line forecast shows a 25 percent probability of a major disaster, defined as a loss of civilization somewhere in the world due to any number of several factors, including global warming and resultant sea-level rise. Also, a 35 percent probability that our reaction to those factors would be insufficient to forestall at least some disaster.

"These are serious consequences," Halal said. "We talked to a lot of intelligent people, and that generally seems to be the attitude, that the world does not know how we’re going to get through this mega-crisis."

The futurists disagreed on the rise of business aviation, with Cetron pointing to a lingering need "to press the flesh," and Bushnell to finances and technological capability engendering increased teleconferencing.

Cetron forecast increasing demand for business travel in China, India, Russia and Brazil, probably surpassing that in the United States.

To a man, though, they decried the ability of the United States to handle a technological future without an increase in the quality of education.

"We're not only losing our children, we're dumbing down our education," Cetron said, then Bushnell offered at least part of a solution.

"Our education system is in the tank," Bushnell said. "And we can’t fix it with bricks and mortar. We have to do it virtually, like the rest of the world does."

It's the way the U.S. can best cope with a future that includes longer lives and the health to enjoy them.


The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
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