Change is in the air

Picture of a plane in the air

While this year's vacation plans have looked different, many of us find ourselves dreaming of a time when we can book exotic getaways in faraway destinations.

That got us thinking about the future of travel, and especially flying.

We wanted to take a look at the technological advancements made in the world of air travel.

Commercial aviation currently (or at least pre-covid) accounts for about 2% of the world's global CO2 emissions, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), making it a sector that needs substantial attention when it comes to lowering our global carbon footprint.

Some forecasts project that the number of passengers will double over the next two decades, and carbon emissions from aviation are expected to rise by about 300 percent by 2050. Therefore, we need to make aviation less impactful.

We’ve taken a look at some initiatives that might change how we fly in the future.

Fuel efficiency

While fuel efficiency sounds like the least ‘sexy’ initiative, it is one where a lot of advances are constantly made, and where there’s still a lot to be gained.

In the aircraft taxi process alone, semi-autonomous vehicles that work via remote-control can save a surprising amount of fuel. They do so by pushing and pulling the airplane around on the runway, which means the plane doesn’t use a ton of jet fuel during taxiing. Kind of like turning off your car engine when you are sat in a long queue that isn’t moving, it’s less wasteful.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Sustainable aviation fuel and aviation biofuel is an overall name for jet fuel produced not from fossil fuels, but different kinds of biomaterial or waste.

For instance, British Airways started an initiative to create jet fuel from household waste. Imagine flying through the air on used diapers and empty milk cartons.

But it’s not only our waste bins that can be useful for the next generation of airplane fuels.

An engineering firm called SkyNRG is collaborating with Rotterdam Airport to produce jet fuel made partly from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Simplified, it sucks carbon emissions from the air and uses it as part of the jet fuel. While it’s not a cure-all solution, such aviation fuel from atmospheric carbon can be a part of larger progress.

Other biofuels that are being researched are biofuel made from algae or even from seawater bacteria. (Algae biofuel might even fuel space travel someday!). While biofuels might not become 100% CO2 neutral, projections from NASA say that a jet fuel mixture, meaning a mix between biofuel and regular jet fuel, can cut air pollution caused by air traffic by 50–70%! That is a significant impact.

Electric planes

Imagine going on vacation in a flying Tesla. Sounds good? While flying cars and battery-powered airplanes have always seemed like a futuristic fantasy, we might be closer to that future than you think. And the benefits? Besides fewer carbon emissions, electric planes could reduce noise pollution.

Last year, the United Kingdom announced that parts of its £300 million investment to develop greener forms of air travel include the use of more electronic flights.

The problem with electric planes is that it’s not simply a question of sticking a battery in existing planes. The power needed to lift an aircraft off the ground is a lot more than needed to power your laptop. The more power you need, the more batteries you have to put in the flight, making it heavier, thus requiring even more battery power.

However, there’s an entire fleet of aircraft that could be made electric.

These include urban air taxis and cargo drones. Yes, urban taxis. Get your Jetsons hairstyle on, because we are getting flying cars!

Autonomous airplanes

Just like autonomous cars, autonomous airplanes have a large potential for fuel efficiency because they are constantly optimizing their routes and their flying in relation to their surroundings and they might be here sooner than we expect. In fact, Airbus' self-flying plane just completed a successful taxi, take-off, and landing tests.

While self-flying planes might feel like a bit too adventurous for your next adventure, it's interesting to follow the development as they spawn a number of fuel-saving initiatives.

No single solution of the above is enough to bring the greenhouse gas emissions of the aviation industry down to zero. Still, with continued technological advancements, and conscience traveling on our part, we can keep moving closer towards a carbon-neutral future.

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