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Soaring Twenties: Drones pick up tools, but electric planes a long way off

Steve Wright, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of the West of England

'Whenever I walk around and I see a ladder or a piece of scaffolding, I imagine a drone doing that job' (Credit: Matt Clough)
'Whenever I walk around and I see a ladder or a piece of scaffolding, I imagine a drone doing that job' (Credit: Matt Clough)

What do the next 10 years hold for engineering? Experts across eight industry sectors gave us their considered, professional – and occasionally controversial – predictions for the Soaring Twenties.

Drones will take off in new and surprising ways, says Steve Wright from the University of the West of England, but other aerospace technology will fail to deliver:

Everybody is talking about electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing vehicles (eVTOLs), also known as flying taxis. There is going to be disappointment – the technology is not moving as quickly as some companies might hope – but they will start to appear over our heads in the 2020s.

There are all sorts of compromises that need to be made to get the efficiency as high as possible, but frankly companies aren’t going to solve the energy-density issue. We are spoiled rotten by hydrocarbon fuel, which has about 40MJ per kilogram, but the best batteries at the moment have 1MJ. Even if we double or triple energy density in batteries over the next 10 years, we’re still a long way away from aviation fuel. If we get to one-hour flights by 2030, I’d be really surprised. 

The Civil Aviation Authority is working very hard to construct a useful framework for eVTOLs. They want us to succeed, but of course they’re under a lot of pressure to make sure we do it safely.

Drones will look the same but become more refined on the inside. Propulsion will definitely improve, and there are still a whole load of design and material inefficiencies that can be improved. The integration of artificial intelligence will be interesting. James Marshall, a professor at Sheffield University, is investigating bees’ brains. Bio-inspired swarming could be a very efficient approach, compared to the sledgehammer approach of our modern microprocessors.

Deliveries by drone will be like 3D cinema, where everyone gives it a go but it doesn’t stick around. Control and navigation need to improve, and we need recharging infrastructure. It could take off in the 2030s though. 

Whenever I walk around and I see a ladder or a piece of scaffolding, however, I imagine a drone doing that job instead. The next applications will involve touching and manipulating things. This could be cleaning windows or solar panels, or painting buildings. Researchers are also looking at how to drill holes or insert bolts from flying vehicles

One application is absolutely guaranteed – the military stuff. ‘Hunter-killer’ drones designed to target other drones are being developed. It might end up looking like a First World War dogfight by 2029.

People are going to be disappointed with electric aeroplanes by 2030. Without an absolutely astonishing physics breakthrough, we can’t expect even a regional electric jet until about 2035. I don’t expect the first electric transatlantic passenger flight until about 2050. 

The shame about hydrogen fuel cells is they’ve got more efficiency but about the same level of complexity as conventional internal combustion engines, while current biofuels are almost more environmentally damaging than fossil fuels, thanks to deforestation and palm oil growth. The big hope is for second- and third-generation biofuels from vast paddy fields in previously unusable land. 

Will we see commercial supersonic flight in the 2020s? Rarely. As with Concorde, it will be a ‘stop and point’ moment if a supersonic jet flies over.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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