The search to identify the next disruptive technology had delegates buzzing at this year’s Willis Towers Watson aviation conference in Singapore. The event offered a strong cross-section of air-transport businesses — including manufacturers, aircraft owner/operators, lessors, financiers, service providers, lawyers and insurers —with airline executives proving particularly eager to scan the technological horizon.
Discussions on the floor reflected the findings of our recent Transportation Risk Index, in which a perceived ‘inability to keep pace with technological change’ was seen as the top risk for almost 50 senior airline executives who took part in the survey.
As one of the aviation industry’s leading companies, Airbus participated in many of the discussions; Willis Towers Watson Wire caught up with Gregor Dirks, Airbus Corporate Innovator, on the sidelines of the event to talk technology.
Dirks cited electric propulsion, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, and the emergence of ‘smart’ materials as some emerging technologies that have the potential to significantly impact business as usual for the industry.
How insurance products will need to adapt to stay relevant remains to be seen. But the pace of technological change is escalating across the air-transport landscape, and actuaries will need to respond to ensure any new risk levels are reflected.
Electricity in the air
There’s a growing consensus among airlines that the electric-propulsion era is drawing nearer for commercial aircraft. The engines themselves are already available, but the batteries to adequately power them remain elusive. Once they are available — or there’s another technology that can deliver electricity onboard, such as a super-capacitor — Dirks believes the race will be on to develop and deploy electric propulsion airplanes.
“(Electric propulsion) will change things as massively as when jet engines were introduced,” Dirks told Willis Towers Watson Wire. “If we had the batteries, electric-powered flight would be very tempting; it would be cheaper and, with zero [emissions] output at altitude, operations would be environmentally without concern. It will change the picture quite dramatically from the technology point of view, and probably from the commercial point of view.”
For one, airplanes would look different, says Dirks. For energy storage in batteries the weight might be higher, for super-capacitors lower than with jet-fuel today. But, more importantly, as a battery (or an alternate power-delivery system) would maintain its weight during flight, the slat and flap systems would need to be adapted to the extent that wing designs would need to change.
New optimum operating altitudes and speeds would also influence those designs, as well as air traffic management procedures to address the new altitude requirements. If batteries (or chemical devices that deliver energy) are the way forward, the breakthrough could come from any of a number of players, including mobile devices, computer hardware and the automotive industry; efforts are ongoing to improve everything from weight-per-energy output ratios and charging times to lifecycles, recharge frequencies and aspects of operational safety.
Airbus is among a number of companies that have taken an active interest in the development of very short-range electric vehicles, or people-moving drones. These efforts, too, are presently limited by battery packs that offer only a few minutes of power.
“We are far away from having a practical solution for airlines being driven by electricity and we really have no idea where the ‘Big Bang’ break [in battery technology] will come from,” said Dirks. “But we are convinced it will come, so we are all preparing for it.”
Another area that has the potential to significantly change the aerospace industry is the way in which nanotechnology is hastening the development of ‘smart’ materials. Dirks said Airbus and other advanced organisations are now able to build multifunctional structures with materials designed to not only withstand greater stress loads, but also have sensing capabilities.
These ‘intuitive’ materials are supporting the design and construction of airframes (and potentially other safety-critical components) that can be programmed to bend or twist in specific manners to respond to conditions revealed by sensors imbedded in the material. The sensors can also detect when maximum stress levels have been reached or breached, as well as environmental changes such as temperature and air consistency.
Materials are also being developed to repel dirt and other foreign substances, raising the specter of self-repairing components, a development that would significantly change the maintenance landscape.
“All of this is slowly coming into the realm of practical application. We have had [dirt-repelling materials] in the lab for a while and in the next few years it will become a tangible tool for design engineers. [The materials] still need to be certified before being released to the consumer, but that is coming.”
Better in-flight entertainment with virtual and augmented reality
Technological advances in virtual and augmented reality devices are also improving process efficiency at the factory and maintenance levels, says Dirks, already offering the type of back-office support that cuts both production and repair times.
In the shorter term, the impact of virtual reality devices are likely to be most visible in the passenger cabins, where they will revolutionise in-flight entertainment.
“This a disruptive element that is already here. People are accepting wearing glasses to see additional information, and that is massively impacting the way we design, build and maintain airplanes today,” Dirks said. “And it will massively impact what passengers expect during the flight in terms of in-flight entertainment. Very soon, watching a flat screen will not be enough. They will want an immersive experience.”
3-D printed planes
3D printing technology is changing the cabin experience, according to Dirks. The printers have already developed to the extent that they can produce extremely intricate, high-quality components and parts, and in series that support finite customisation.
“3D printing is going to be a massive new experience for the customer and their supply chain,” Dirks said. “Both in the time it takes to create the designs and the variety of the shapes we can produce — particularly with regard to the cabin — the customisation available through this technology is already changing the landscape.”
“The simple, low-hanging-fruit risk solutions have already been picked,” said Dirks. “Whenever we need to introduce something new, we typically need several players to come together to find new business models that are not simple. If you do not have these integrated conferences, encouraging people to take the same view is difficult. So I think there is a very high value in having an event where there is not just one narrow band of wisdom.”
He cited the emerging cyber security threat. “(Finding a solution) will require the best knowledge, not someone with a proprietary solution. The industry as a whole has to come up with a solution to a massive problem we are all facing. This is one of the places that you can hope to find solutions which are not just theoretical, but practical and viable.”