Disclaimer: This article is a living document (last updated on Nov 16, 2022), which means it will grow over time as we add more technologies to our hype cycle analysis. As of today, only two technologies have been assessed, but six more will follow over the next few weeks. Feel free to bookmark this page and return regularly for the latest update.
A great deal has been written about the future of aviation.
In particular, people have pondered how passenger air travel will become more sustainable in the years to come.
As concerns over climate change continue to mount, the aviation industry is facing mounting pressure to reduce its environmental impact.
Undoubtedly, aviation has a significant impact on CO2 emissions.
As a result, technologies that might limit the carbon footprint of commercial airplanes, such as electric and hydrogen propulsion, are heavily discussed.
While this is the case, two aspects remain unclear:
- How advanced are R&D efforts for these technologies at present?
- When will these technologies be expected to play a meaningful role in the future of sustainable aviation?
We want to increase transparency surrounding how far major technologies affecting the future of air travel have come. To achieve this, we applied the Gartner hype cycle framework and used it to evaluate all major New Air Travel technologies.
For this analysis, we identified eight key emerging technologies that have the potential to change the way we travel from A to B through the air.
These technologies include hydrogen and electric flying, air taxis, a.k.a eVTOLs, futuristic airships, commercial supersonic jets, autonomously-flying aircraft, and space-travel jets.
Given its potential to reduce aviation’s CO2 footprint, we also include Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as a technology to consider, even though it isn’t exactly a new technology on the same dimension as the previously mentioned.
The unofficial hype cycle for New Air Travel
Over the next few weeks, we will explain each of these eight technologies in detail and evaluate their market readiness by mapping them across the hype cycle framework.
Let’s start with the first two categories, SAF and Autonomous Flight technology. Here is how we map them.
As you can see, SAF is positioned all the way to the right side of the hype cycle.
This means that SAF is the most ready-to-use technology out of all the eight categories.
How so? Let us explain.
(1/8) Sustainable Aviation Fuel: the industry’s lifesaver
SAF is a jet fuel made from sustainable feedstocks that can have up to 80% lower life cycle carbon emissions than traditional fossil jet fuels.
- Our hype cycle assessment determined that SAF is currently located in the Slope of Enlightenment phase.
- Furthermore, we expect SAF to reach the Plateau of Productivity in the next two to three years.
Here’s why: SAF has arguably become the hottest “green topic” in the aviation industry, and this has been the case since the onset of the sustainable air-travel debate in 2018.
The aviation industry has set ambitious goals to decarbonize by 2050. In order to achieve these goals, the sector must take immediate action and SAF seems to provide the most obvious solution. While there are still several challenges associated with SAF, such as limited availability and higher costs, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
As the Sustainable Aero Lab rightfully concluded in its SAF primer, the technology has been widely recognized as the only feasible option for the aviation industry to achieve its sustainability targets in the coming decades.
In other words, SAF is the industry’s primary means of providing a cleaner fuel source that will power the world’s aircraft fleets of the future.
It’s no wonder SAF has become so widely discussed, from internal industry talks to garnering mainstream media attention.
In fact, the number of Google searches for “Sustainable Aviation Fuel” skyrocketed in 2021.
The “SAF path” into a more sustainable aviation future also becomes evident when we take a closer look at how airlines have thus far addressed the pressure to reduce carbon emissions.
- Every major carrier in the world has recently launched its own SAF initiative.
- These include partially SAF-powered demonstration flights, SAF purchasing agreements with energy and fuel providers, and SAF-based compensation programs for customers, alongside other partnerships dedicated to enabling SAF use.
As SAF is a “drop-in fuel,” meaning it can be blended with fossil jet fuel, the technology is already produced and used by airlines worldwide. As a technology, SAF isn’t necessarily challenging to produce in and of itself. However, it must be produced in far greater sums to make a meaningful difference in climate change and keep up with global jet fuel demands. Currently, SAF is barely in use, which is troubling.
According to the same research by the Sustainable Aero Lab, SAF is still a fledgling industry, with roughly only 20 million gallons (~75 million liters) of production capacity in 2020, which accounts for less than 0.05% of the world’s aviation fuel use.
Despite this, a growing ecosystem of startups and energy companies is producing more SAF.
As a result, we believe the “technology” will enter its Plateau of Productivity in the next few years.
Next one up is autonomous flying.
(2/8) Autonomous Flights: Quietly getting to the market
When we speak of this technology, we are referring to a future scenario of commercial airline flights that are operated without a pilot controlling the aircraft. Instead, the aircraft management is overseen by an operator (who can take control of the plane if necessary) and the aircraft’s automated management system.
At present, autonomous flying is on the Slope of Enlightenment in the hype cycle. We believe that in five to ten years, this technology could reach the Plateau of Productivity.
To arrive at this conclusion, we based our reasoning on two dimensions, including the current state of technology and the number of companies working at the forefront of autonomous flying technology.
Let’s take a closer look at both.
The state of technology
From nearly the beginning of the aircraft era, which took place more than 100 years ago, engineers have contemplated flight technology that best supports pilots. It’s no wonder that the first airplane with somewhat of an autopilot system was built back in the 1910s by the Sperry Corporation.
Over the century to come, the progress of technology has, of course, grown exponentially. The “autopilots” of today are not comparable to the early origins of “autonomous flying”.
Modern autopilots use computer software to control the aircraft. As a result, these technologies are advanced to an extent that the majority of people who are not a part of the aviation or software industries are unable to wrap their heads around.
According to the Ranadovic scale of autonomy levels in the Advanced Air Mobility context, the current level of development is somewhere between Conditional Automation and High Automation.
- The former requires a human pilot to pay attention and be ready to suddenly take over flight operations.
- The latter can but does not need to have a pilot operate the plane.
From a technical perspective, the High Automation level is already a possibility today.
However, there are a couple barriers in the way of making this a reality, including regulations and social acceptance.
Firstly, authorities and regulators are constantly evaluating the acceptable next levels of autopilots. New features are evaluated, certified, and added on a regular basis.
- Thus far, some progress has been made to realize the High Automation level of autonomous flying. For instance, Reliable robotics company has started a certification process with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) on its “advanced navigation and autoflight system, which will eventually enable pilotless flights monitored by ground personnel.”
- However, final approval still seems to be a few years away. This is the case given that all potential technology loopholes must be closed in tandem with the aviation industry’s safety standards.
Secondly, the level of social acceptance of fully autonomous flights is still unclear. A 2019 survey conducted by Ansys revealed that 70% of consumers expect to “travel in an autonomous aircraft in their lifetime.”
However, this doesn’t mean that today’s travelers would feel comfortable boarding a fully autonomous aircraft, especially with the knowledge that there is no pilot on board.
Interestingly, the majority of travelers are unaware that today’s commercial flights are already heavily supported by autopilot technology. This demonstrates that there is little awareness of the technology and its application. The survey also shows that by actively informing people about current autopilot technology, perceptions can be changed positively. Therefore, proper communication can increase the social acceptance of autonomous flight technologies in the future but it will be a long process.
As a result, we believe the social acceptance of autonomous flights will be challenging to overcome over the next decade. Hence, we don’t expect planes to become “pilotless” any time soon. We believe a pilot will stay onboard even if planes no longer require a pilot in the traditional sense. While social acceptance may take a while to come around, this doesn’t mean that planes won’t be flying mostly autonomously in the near future.
Pilots will remain in the cockpit to appease travelers who feel uncomfortable in the air without a human operator. However, pilots will be more aircraft system managers than actual manual flight operators.
The autonomous-flying startup ecosystem
The fact that autonomous flying technologies are moving towards market readiness also becomes evident when looking at the number of companies working on autonomous flying technologies. The number of these tech firms has rapidly increased over the past few years.
Furthermore, VC investments into these companies have been on the rise, reaching a record high in 2021. However, aggregated funding sums of about 350 million USD last year are still marginal keeping in mind that more than 45 billion USD were invested in all of Travel and Mobility Tech last year.
There are a number of recently funded startups that are, particularly, promising for the future of autonomous flying technology.
- This includes Merlin Labs, which emerged from stealth with an autonomous flight system designed to be installed in existing aircraft. The company raised a massive $105 million USD in funding this summer.
- Meanwhile, Skyryse, another autonomous flight company, has also raised a significant amount of funding in its latest round. The company aims to “reduce the learning curve so that learning to fly is as easy as learning to drive.”
In conclusion, we believe that “High Automation” flight technology has a positive outlook in terms of technology readiness. The next step is certification. However, whether social acceptance will follow suit remains to be seen.
The startup ecosystem is gaining momentum. We wouldn’t be surprised to see more players entering the market in the years to come.
With all this in mind, we expect autonomous flying to reach the Plateau of Productivity in the next five to ten years.
Interested in where the other technologies like electric flying, hydrogen propulsion, air taxis, and supersonic jets score on the hype cycle? Stay tuned for further updates to this article.