October 15, 2012
Credit: Credit: Aurora Flight Sciences
There is a generation in aerospace and aviation that first became enthralled with the possibilities of flight in the 1960s. That was the twilight of an extraordinary era of innovation that had lasted a quarter of a century. It was era in which the world airspeed record rose fourfold, air travel went from the wreck of the Hindenburg in 1937 to the Concorde treaty in 1962, and rocketry from an eccentric hobby to the ultimate weapon. Where is the inspiration today for the airships, spaceplanes, tailsitters, flying cars and hypersonic gliders that fired our imagination?
Happily, we need to look not back to the 1950s, but to here in the 2010s, where these ideas are being actively pursued—mostly by companies that are far from household names. It might not be rife in Big Industry, but there is still a strong current of innovation in aerospace. This is particularly true in unmanned aircraft, where removing the size and safety constraints imposed by a human pilot has opened up the trade space and allowed designers to revisit unconventional concepts discarded decades ago as unworkable.
Take the dazzlingly weird Vought XF5U-1 “Flying Flapjack” of 1946, with its massive propellers and disc-like wing. This constituted an evolutionary dead-end until Aurora Flight Sciences revived the configuration for its Skate mini-UAV (both pictured above), scaled down to a hand-launched vehicle that snaps together from three slabs of plastic foam.
Or take the airship, which reached its zenith in the 1930s and has been extinct except as a novelty since the Beatles were playing Hamburg. Half a century later, the Pentagon-sponsored Aeros Pelican (see page 46) is something new: an airship that can change its buoyancy on demand, as a submarine does in water.
Some criticize this reinvention trend as unimaginative, but many of the innovations we applaud today in other industries are the repackaging of old ideas using new technologies. Through advances in materials, propulsion and electronics, aerospace has a similar opportunity—even obligation—to mine its past for ideas.
The post-war years of the late 1940s and 1950s were enormously creative for an industry that saw nothing wrong with its ambition outreaching its abilities. Designers were supremely confident that technology would catch up with their imaginations—and, decades later, it may finally be happening.
The question is how to enable this creative wackiness to thrive within an industry that is increasingly averse to risk, and with a customer base that is increasingly unwilling to fund R&D that does not promise to deliver near-term capabilities.
One successful recent vehicle was the Ansari X Prize: $10 million to the first team to launch a reusable manned spacecraft. The winner was Burt Rutan's air-dropped SpaceShipOne, an unconventional solution without doubt. X Prize founder Peter Diamandis is trying to repeat the success with a $30 million challenge to land a robotic rover on the Moon.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has long been the champion of wackiness within the Pentagon, whether it is legged robots or flying Jeeps. Darpa has a notoriously short attention span, balanced by a weak corporate memory, which makes it quick to end projects but willing to revisit discarded ideas as technology evolves.