Apollo astronaut John Young on the moon in 1972 before the classes of 2014 were born

The classes of 2014 in aeronautical engineering at the University of Sydney have shared their predictions for the future of flight as what is often called its Aero School reaches the seventy fifth year since its foundation in 1939.

This is what they have said, and, at the end of their message, some reasons as to why they are completely correct in their predictions will be offered:

Personal air vehicles (PAVs), lightweight four to five seater aircraft that anyone with a drivers licence could fly are in the not too distant future according to a University of Sydney aeronautical student.

The prediction from Dana King comes ahead of the University’s year 75 anniversary celebration of aeronautical engineering at the University of Sydney on 4 July.

The twenty year old student from Perth, studying combined Bachelor of Engineering (Aeronautical) and Bachelor of Project Management (Civil Engineering Science), clearly sees a future in the design and development of rotorcraft or rotary-wing aircraft where she can utilise her expertise in aerodynamics.

“When people think aerodynamics, they think only about the commercial airline industry.   It’s so much more than that. With my degree I can work on projects involving not just aircraft but also, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), helicopters or drones.

“Aerodynamics is a secret weapon in almost every engineering field,” she says.

Dana sees the industry surging towards being more commercially available and playing a more prominent role in our transport system.

“From commercial space flights to PAV’s, the push is there and the global desire for fast, cheap travel is a strong driver for our industry,” says Dana.

Professor Andy Dong, Warren Centre Chair for Engineering Innovation at the University agrees with Dana’s predictions for the future of aviation:

He says: “Our built environment will start to change to accommodate aerial transport of people and goods – your garage will not be on the ground floor, especially as Australians progress toward vertical living in high-rise apartment blocks.

The innovation professor also envisages that we’ll have personal aerial assistants – aerial vehicles (robots) that can do things like walk our dogs, keep an eye out on the kids playing at the park, help disabled people to get around, deliver goods.

Ben Morrell working on autonomous industrial space delivery systems: University of Sydney photo

Aeronautical engineering Ph.D. candidate Ben Morrell, who is conducting research in control systems for autonomous robots aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  This straight A student predicts that UAVs will become more and more widespread, used in fields such as: search and rescue, agriculture, environmental monitoring, cinematography and cargo delivery.

Ben’s goal is to be part of a team that is pushing the boundaries of space exploration. His research is investigating the role of robotic spacecraft, ‘spheres’, and their ability to move autonomously around the ISS. The work has the potential to be applied to maintenance of the ISS, deep space exploration and space mining.  Ben says his research was inspired by the flying orbs in Star Wars.

“Space is the new frontier” says Ben who sees the galaxy opening up more and more to commercial entities such as Space X, Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic.

“Within maybe a decade we will see more missions to mars and more human presence in space” says Ben.

“Space mining will eventually become a reality. This would be driven largely by autonomous systems such as the robotic spacecraft I am investigating,” he says.

Ben also predicts there will be new and innovative uses for satellites, and greater satellite coverage of earth.

David Cox aeronautical engineer and chief operation officer of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies agrees with Dana and Ben and says the aviation industry has a promising future.

Here are their top ten predictions for the aviation industry

  • Australia will operate commercial aircraft that use 25 per cent less fuel
  • Aviation bio fuels become a major industry for Australia
  • Autonomous aircraft will become a reality with the first un-piloted mission a military cargo operation
  • An Unmanned Flying Doctor Service will be used to efficiently transport medical supplies to outback Australia
  • Airport of the future – a completely automated airport from baggage handling to aircraft tugging, to talking directly to aircraft system and not the pilot
  • Environmental robotic aircraft – will keep an eye on the environment with long endurance flights that can intelligently use wind energy like eagles and albatrosses. They would be used to supply farmers and environment agencies with valuable information on animal movement (land, air and sea), pests and land usage
  • Mining the galaxy – space mining will start to become a reality, largely driven by unmanned autonomous systems. It will start to set the platform for a greater human presence in space. Humans in space – space will open up with more commercial entities such as Space X launching spacecraft, and progressing towards reusable rockets and regular manned spaceflights
  • Connecting the globe – there will be new and innovative uses for satellites, and greater satellite coverage of earth due to cheaper satellites and cheaper launches: meaning more and more people can be involved with space technology
  • Flying Cars and private air vehicles will be available to the general public opening up highways in the sky. These four to five seater craft would allow anyone with a drivers licence to fly.

None of the classes of 2014 would have been alive when the great ocean liners ran scheduled sailings to the rest of a larger, more distant world.  Times when the age of the propeller augmented but did not commercially overtake the lift provided by the likes of  P&O Orient or the Matson Lines or even the Adelaide Steam Ship Company.

Few if any of them would have be born before the Apollo manned expeditions to the Moon ended in 1972, or Giotto glimpsed the dark nucleus of Halley’s Comet in 1986 from within its blindingly bright inner coma.

But most of these engineers and designers of the aerospace and transport industries of the twenty first century could be active in their careers in 2061, since ‘we’ will live and work, and it is to be hoped,  play longer. And that will be the year of the hundredth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned orbit of earth and for the fifth predicted return of that comet, very brightly but very briefly visible in the fading glow of sunset in August of that year.

What will be the population of the Moon in 2061, or of Space? Will it be greater than that of Antarctica today?  There may well be more of us living out there than on the seventh and South Polar continent, and for good industrial as well as research reasons.  Some, perhaps most, of the classes of 2014 will go into space for various reasons. (Even this reporter might go into space, but no where near as often.)

The technology to make PAVs or personal air vehicles possible is manifesting itself now, at a remarkable rate, in lightweight quadcopters and Google cars and similar ‘driverless’ surface vehicles.

It is already present in auto park systems. The capacity to be able to instruct a vehicle to navigate to a destination and do so through a mixture of manually driven, pedaled, or also automated vehicles, and give way to pedestrians and avoid collisions with small animals or livestock or any imaginable and unpredicted obstacle is rushing toward large scale commercial application, perhaps within only a few decades.

It will change notions of vehicle ownership or sharing, and perceptions of the role of surface transport, and it already allows people who are totally clueless as to how aerial devices work to smoothly command quadcopters to monitor rural properties, check out surfing breaks, and do a continuously expanding role of functions, unfortunately including really annoying other people or intruding on their lives.

This observer anticipates a whole galaxy of autonomous perimeter or privacy defender quadcopters that will ‘deal with’ nuisance aerial visitors.

There will be a future for quadcopters and the like beyond the impending infantile era of $20 throw away devices that will be an order of magnitude more capable than $200 mini drones today, as well as one tenth as expensive.

These technologies, in light weight accessible drones, and increasingly available improvements to surface vehicle technology, will inevitably take flight.

The key prerequisites, of keep flying objects safely and autonomously separated, have become achievable within a period of decades.  This includes the task of hardening the technology to prevent evil things being done to remotely interfere with the operation of these devices.

The fears that some such terrible thing remotely caused the loss of MH370 have not yet been clearly annunciated, nor dismissed, although most observers don’t believe this was a factor.

However these concerns reflect the fear that such hacking of new navigational technology could arise to wreck the future of aerial devices of all types. This is a much more reasonable fear, and it will have to be addressed through hard wired prevention of such abuses as these new technologies reach the right levels of cost and functionality to meet emerging commercial demands.

What the classes of 2014 know is achievable through technology can only come to pass  through advances in collaborative social engineering.         

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