The genius of simplicity – that’s what shipping containers are. Perfected to transport our goods by railway or ship, they are designed to maximise the use of limited space and weight. Why not translate this efficiency into new aircraft designs, based on modular elements?
How much more efficient can aviation get – and how much flexibility do its finetuned procedures allow? These are the questions modular aircraft concepts face. Their inspiration: the inconspicuous shipping container.
How much more efficient can aviation get – and how much flexibility do its finetuned procedures allow?
Two companies set out to adapt the invincible simplicity of the foundation of modern logistics to the requirements of the aviation industry. The intention: enable air transportation to keep up with increasing air travel numbers, an ever-expanding global flow of goods as well as changing customer demands.
Pod Plans from Switzerland: Clip-Air
Switzerland’s Federal Polytechnic Institute in Lausanne is one of Europe’s most renown universities in the fields of engineering and technology, repeatedly scoring high in academic rankings. It is home to the ambitious Clip-Air project. Aiming at nothing less than changing the structures of air travel, their vision is this: a modular aircraft that can decouple the transportation module in the form of a flying wing from its load – capsules designed to transport either passengers, freight, or fuel.
Aren’t we able to transport all these things already, one might ask? So far, nothing new. But imagine starting a journey in the comfortable compartment of a train. Boarding it at your local train station, you travel the countryside, ending up at the oceanic coast where your train pod is attached to an aircraft to take you even farther. It would become possible to travel around the world in one pod.
The pod would allow for transportation of passengers and freight coupled together on a custom-made train. The current model of the Clip-Air envisions a wing-only aircraft that can hook up to three capsules. Those could either transport passengers or freight over a distance of 4000 kilometers.
The modular system allows for flexibility in adapting the aircraft to actual requirements, such as the possibility to attach only first or second-class pods, depending on the bookings. This would allow a more efficient use of aircraft space and lead in consequence to the use of fewer aircraft.
Replace one of the transport capsules with a fuel tank, and the distance covered by a Clip-Air aircraft could be maximized significantly. Plus, the additional tank would allow for different choices in fuel such as liquid gas, which would typically be inconvenient due to its space requirements.
Link & Fly – Aviation Innovation Made in France
The media called it something that James Bond’s tech expert Q would have come up with: Link & Fly, a modular aircraft concept, developed by the French company Akka Technologies. Concerned initially with car manufacturing, including the take-over of Daimler engineering some years ago, the Paris-based company is now hoping to enthuse new clients in the U.S., especially Boeing. The company is no stranger to marketing disruptive transportation concepts. In 2008 they introduced an autonomous car concept, and in 2014 they started offering their services to car makers.
And just like they did with their autonomous car concept, Akka does not aim at convincing plane makers to actually build the complete “Link & Fly” aircraft. Rather, they aim at inspiring manufacturers to pick up on the idea to implement parts of it in commercial aircraft.
Therefore, customers can hire Akka engineering personal as project-based consultants. Potential future markets for the company’s consultancy services include China and India: similar to the Clip-Air concept from Switzerland, Akka’s Link & Fly is based on an aircraft consisting of two main parts: a pair of flying wings and detachable pods to carry passengers.
And just as the Clip-Air, Link & Fly would not only have an impact on how the passenger aviation industry works but it would also change the way we travel by train. Introducing train-like tubes, the passengers can board at a station closer to their home that will then travel to the airport – and be attached to the aircraft to continue the journey by air.
What Are the Limits in the Sky?
The main arguments that come up when introducing modular aircraft concepts are (cost) efficiency and pollution. An aircraft, adaptable in its capacity to given requirements at a specific time, could lead to fewer planes both in the air and standing idle on the ground. This could mean less space needed at airports, which is important for the future of city airports in densely populated urban areas. And with the possibility of attachable tanks for fuel, alternatives to fossil fuels such as liquid gas could be explored.
But all futuristic enthusiasm aside, the critics of the concept have strong arguments on their side as well. One is that so far, the actual aircraft for the modular system have often turned out to be too heavy and therefore inefficient.
Another argument counters the propagated efficiency and streamlining of passenger processing at airports. Implementing a new type of modular pods that could be transferred from railway to aircraft would mean massive interference and changes to the highly optimized logistics at airports. With custom-made trains needed to carry the passenger pods, already existing infrastructure would have to undergo changes, accumulating massive costs.
Skepticism and critique are needed for every discussion that is aiming at producing sustainable results and practical ideas. The point to take from this glimpse into a potential industry trend is the big question: where are the limits to innovation in an operational system – how much disruption is tolerable while still maintaining efficiency?