It also adds up to an opportunity. NASA's Moore argues that a significant number of customers would prefer to avoid "737 buses" and hop on an air taxi. "Certainly, a centralized system is as efficient as you can get, but is there something better?"
NASA's aviation division and other air taxi enthusiasts say there is: They predict a network of small aircraft
that fly into vastly underused regional airports and that are
connected to a next-generation traffic-control system. Moore also argues that a small-aircraft network would be more hardened against catastrophic 9/11-style attacks. "Catastrophic events always occur. When they do, nature selects the most robust creature to fill the void that has been created. Right now, the solution is a series of 30 airports, with over 90 percent of the travel going through those 30 airports. Is that robust enough to survive the test of time?"
Air taxis will save the world, in this vision.
Brown of Airbus profoundly disagrees: Efficiency is on the side of airlines flying big airplanes, and the markets that will determine the future lie overseas anyway. Brown, whose company's A380 will soon fly up to 820 passengers to airports that have to be modified to handle the load, believes that airplanes and aviation are on a steady growth curve. "The fact is that on long-range trips, the cheapest way to fly is through a centralized system. So do you prefer to have maybe one expensive flight a week, or would you prefer to have a choice of several cheap flights every day, even though it involves a stop [at a hub]?"
Brown's vision therefore includes stretched versions of the A380 capable of carrying well over 1,000 passengers, with the smallest aircraft in the system carrying no fewer than 200. Most of the travel, Brown's studies show, will take place within countries with burgeoning economies and populations, China in particular. The future of aviation is mammoth and global.
YOUR AIRPLANE WILL HAVE HORSE SENSE
How big a bite next-generation small aircraft will take out of the airline system is impossible to know, but technology will radically transform the pilot and passenger experience. Rutan describes aircraft with user-friendly cockpits for pilots who find themselves in foul weather or tricky situations. "I don't mean anything like the air traffic control system that we have. We need synthetic vision to see through the clouds. We need intuitive collision avoidance and intuitive navigation, and by 'intuitive' I mean we are alerted by a sound that comes from the direction of the threat, not [something you see] on a screen down here on the instrument panel. The information in the noise signature can tell you all kinds of things about what that threat is. It should tell you what to do to avoid the problem. And, of course, if you're asleep or drunk or don't do it, the airplane should take over and miss it anyway."
An air taxi system, which would put far more aircraft into the sky than ever before, will require a drastic cut in the number of crashes per flight that now occur in general aviation. Only computer power can deliver this. "If you look at accidents," GE's Benzakein says, "85 percent of them are caused by pilots. It's human error. And if technology comes in to rectify this, I think that's going to make a major impact."
The prospect of an airplane as easy to fly as a videogame is to play is abhorrent to many general-aviation pilots, who form a club born of the mystique and challenges of piloting small aircraft. Yet the majority on the panel agree that there is little about flying that will be beyond the power of coming computer technology: The airplane will either fly itself, or allow a pilot of limited training to basically "drive" it from Point A to Point B.
"What you will see with these small aircraft is no less than the ability to have them be equivalent to horses," says Moore, citing progress in current UAV research. "I mean, you can get on a horse, and if something happens to you, it's still going to keep plodding along and take you to the next town."
Keeping pace with changes in avionics will be changes in the rest of the machine, including simple aerodynamic efficiency. MacCready sees enormous potential for improvement of small aircraft. "I've been amazed and delighted to see nature showing what can be done for small airplanes. If you look at the birds, you find that they can get by without any energy. An albatross soars over the ocean when the wind is more than 10 miles per hour—swooping, zooming, swooping—without flapping its wings, and could go continuously for days." This is the model that has guided aircraft designers since before the Wrights took to the air in 1903, but materials, design and control systems have been too primitive to realize the dream. Aircraft designers will exploit, among other things, ducted-fan technology for more efficient propulsion, and box-wing configurations that further improve performance.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.