The future of air travel in Europe could include small electric, pilotless aircraft transporting individuals or small groups to fill the gaps in the scheduled air transport network. European aerospace research organizations are nearing completion of an original study on personal air transportation concepts for the 2030 to 2050 time frame. The €4.4 million ($5.7 million) program, dubbed PPlane, could rival–or complement–business aviation.
“This is not about general aviation. Rather, this is individual public air transport,” Claude Le Tallec, a researcher with French aerospace research center Onera and PPlane’s project coordinator, told AIN. The European Commission, through its seventh framework program (FP7) for research and development, is supplying three-quarters of the project’s budget. “The idea is to make the life of the European citizen easier,” Le Tallec added. The study is purely conceptual; it does not involve developing any technology.
Under the PPlane project, a lone passenger or group of up to six passengers would book a flight with the aircraft operator. They would fly from one PPort, a dedicated community airport, to another PPort or a major airport.
To meet its affordability target, the PPlane concept eliminates pilots in the aircraft, which would have a “very high level of automation.” “Flying a small number of people is not economically sound with a professional pilot on board,” a fact borne out by some thin regional routes and some attempts of small air taxi operations, said le Tallec.
Teams of pilots on the ground would take care of a group of aircraft. If a problem were to arise on an aircraft, the workload redistribution would allow the pilot responsible for the problem aircraft to focus solely on that aircraft.
In addition to affordability, PPlane has as one of its main goals social acceptability, which is why the project is focusing on electric motors. Le Tallec and his team have ruled out internal-combustion engines (either piston or turbine) because their noise and emissions are considered too high, even with hoped-for improvements over the coming decades.
Electric motors present a significant weight challenge. Today, on a Cirrus SR22 piston single, for example, the engine and fuel, combined, weigh approximately 700 pounds. State-of-the-art batteries that provide an equivalent endurance would weigh 11,000 pounds. The best battery that manufacturers have in research and development would weigh 1,800 pounds, Le Tallec said.
The PPlane concept would also automate air traffic management (ATM). It would be based on “four-dimension contracts,” where operators commit their aircraft to be at a given place at a given time. In exchange, the ATM authority would give the aircraft a direct route. It would upload it into the aircraft’s flight management system. “We would no longer need air traffic controllers as we know them today,” Le Tallec asserted.
Although the PPlane concept–and its level of automation–reduces the need for pilots and controllers, the system would require employees such as maintenance technicians, ground handlers, PPort managers, sales people and so on.
Onera is coordinating PPlane, and participating organizations include other research centers such as Germany’s DLR and the Netherlands’ NLR.