As 2020 drew to a close, aerospace industry observers would be forgiven if they welcomed in the New Year believing that 2021 will offer little in the way of technological progress, given how hard the pandemic has affected the overall sector, including the disruption in the complex global supply chain and the collapse in commercial aircraft demand.
In reality, a slew of technological milestones across the broader industry are in the offing, and will drive growth and shape aerospace industry trends over the long term. Areas where some of these milestones will occur include space; air mobility; electric and hydrogen propulsion; hypersonics; the advanced application of digital tools such as autonomy, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning; and maintenance/repair/overhaul (MRO).
Space will record some of the most dramatic milestones that would have seemed more like science fiction a decade ago. For example, amid growing alarm over the escalating risk of collisions as low-Earth-orbit mega constellations proliferate, Astroscale U.S. expects to demonstrate its End-of-Life-Services (ELSA) capability in the first quarter of 2021.
More specifically, the demonstration will involve removing defunct objects from orbit using an innovative approach consisting of “servicer” and a “client” spacecraft launched together. The servicer, equipped with proximity rendezvous technologies and a magnetic capture mechanism, will repeatedly release and dock with the client, which has been prepared with a ferromagnetic docking plate. Astroscale intends to prove the capabilities required for space-junk removal, including tumbling and non-tumbling docking.
Other space technologies to watch in the next 12 to 24 months include:
- Manufacturing in space is advancing to support sustained operations on the moon, and a subsidiary of space-services provider Redwire plans a mission to manufacture spacecraft booms in orbit as a step toward in-space resource utilization.
- Hypergiant industries is working with the U.S. Air Force to field a reconfigurable low-Earth-orbit satellite constellation that can be re-tasked between imaging and communications within minutes, enabled by machine learning.
- Relativity Space is on track to test-fly its Terran 1 smallsat launcher in 2021, ahead of commercial service in 2022 at a comparatively bargain-basement price of $12 million. The start-up company’s goal is to additively manufacture nearly entire launch vehicles.
Overall, commercial enterprises will continue to open up access to space throughout 2021. Virgin Galactic’s likely first paying-passenger suborbital flights and the first demonstration orbital launches of SpaceX’s Starship moon and Mars transporter will be among the headline-grabbing events before the end of this year.
In civil aviation, electric propulsion has unleashed a proliferation of technology innovation, which is most evident in Europe, with its ecosystem of small manufacturers producing light aircraft for recreation, training and other purposes. Hybrid-electric power—particularly by hydrogen fuel cells—is a likely next propulsion step for the European market.
All of the major engine manufacturers are working on research to adapt their gas turbines to burn hydrogen, although
no leader in this technology had emerged at the start of 2021. While hydrogen offers the potential to effectively decarbonize single- and twin-aisle commercial aircraft—the biggest contributors to aviation’s climate footprint—the challenges are formidable. A 250-mile demonstration flight by ZeroAvia’s fuel-cell testbed in the first quarter of 2021 in Scotland will add impetus to the progress being made in hydrogen propulsion as a route to zero-emissions aviation. Demonstration of a 19-seat regional aircraft is scheduled to follow within two years.
One of the most exciting sectors in the aerospace industry’s rapid evolution is urban air mobility (UAM), where competition among a large field of research and development-intensive start-ups are vying to become the leader.
As more of these companies progress from prototyping to certification, they increasingly are looking to the supplier base for experience in certifying systems and readying them for volume production. A UAM supply base is starting to emerge that’s a mix of experience and entrepreneurship, a sign the industry segment is maturing. In 2021, a handful of early movers will mark new milestones as they take their designs to the next stage of development, according to Ron Epstein, an aerospace and defense analyst at Banc of America.
For example, Chinese drone maker EHang, the first and only eVTOL (electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing) start-up to go public, expects to receive airworthiness certification for its two-seat EH216 autonomous air vehicle in 2021 from the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Meanwhile, U.S. start-up Joby Aviation is the first eVTOL developer to lock in a certification basis with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), with approval anticipated in 2023 under Part 23 regulations with special conditions. Joby also is the first to achieve military airworthiness approval under the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program, a step toward FAA certification.
Military aviation has long been a hotbed technology innovation, and in 2021 the “loyal wingman” concept of unmanned aircraft cooperating with manned combat aircraft will be put to the test as part of the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program, which is seeking to apply an AI-enabled autonomous control system on multiple unmanned aircraft systems.
Three competing aerospace/defense contractors are expected to deliver prototypes no later than 2021 for initial flight tests, which will benefit from the ability of any AI program to perform millions or simulations in a virtual environment before attempting a flight. The prototypes are expected to transition into flight experiments later in the year. A major differentiator between Skyborg and past combat drone programs is the development of AI that will allow the aircraft to operate autonomously and potentially learn from prior training missions.
In the MRO segment, milestones this year will underscore that efforts to improve sustainability of aviation extend to the ground. In addition to all-electric ramp equipment, operational trials are underway of technologies that range from electric taxiing to autonomous tugs designed to save time and fuel when handling aircraft on the ground.