Is this the future of air travel?


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Fed up with bumping elbows with the stranger in the next seat? We love to grumble at the shortcomings of our regular airlines. But it ain’t easy tinning up 200 passengers and carting them through the air in safety and comfort and at a reasonable price.

The pressures on airline designers are complex and somewhat unique to their industry and even their part of the market.

First Class and Business airlines strive to improve the pleasure and prestige of flying to attract wealthy patrons from rival airlines. Economy airlines recognize that passengers are willing to compromise on comfort if it saves them a few bucks — the difficult bit is finding a balance that customers find acceptable.

Meanwhile, the laws of physics are against them. Space is limited. The shape of a plane determines its efficiency. Every extra gram in the fixtures and fittings bumps up the cost of fuel — and the cost to the environment.

But 120 years after the first powered, heavier-than-air flying machine took off, air travel remains an exciting and futuristic affair. This glamor turns these limits into challenges for designers — and inspires them to come up with ever-more ingenious ways to make air travel more affordable, comfortable and safe.

So how might passenger flights look in the future? sought out ten intriguing proposals that aerospace engineers have submitted to the patent office and re-created their sketches as realistic digital renders.

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What We Did carefully chose a selection of actual patents filed by popular airlines and used them to imagine the future of air travel. We handpicked the most impressive and forward-thinking patents to show a vision of what could be in store for air travelers, ensuring the selection covered every aspect of the aircraft. Our 3D designers took this research as a base to create realistic images of each section of the plane’s interior, from the cockpit to the lavatory.

Key Points

·   Airplane cockpits may soon have digital screens instead of windows.

·   Virtual reality and other high-tech entertainment systems are making their way to the cabin.

·   Designers are using ever-more inventive seating shapes and arrangements to accommodate more passengers with greater comfort.

·   A robot on rails could serve food to your seat, replacing the snacks cart and freeing up precious aisle space.

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The Cockpit: Windscreens Are for Cowards

For obvious reasons, passengers feel reassured when they know the pilot can see through the front of the plane. For more technical reasons, airplane designers are working on removing those front windows. The Pentagon and Lockheed Martin have produced a $400,000 helmet that “enables the pilot to see real-time in every direction thanks to six infrared cameras mounted on the jet.” However, that’s more about keeping the advantage in a dogfight. A supersonic NASA test plane designed for minimal sonic boom positions the cockpit halfway down the plane with a 4K monitor instead of a window.

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And then there’s the commercial sector.

Aerospace giants Airbus figured out that not only do front windows reduce fuel efficiency but that the conventional cockpit takes up valuable seating space. So they moved it.

Patent US9302780B2 proposes that the cockpit could be moved to the belly of the plane or (gulp) into its tail. Rather than a $400k helmet, the pilot would find themselves in a futuristic media center surrounded by OLED displays, projection screens and even “a device with lasers for forming a holographic image.”

The various displays might offer a live video feed or 3D/augmented reality reconstruction of what’s outside; the 3D reconstruction could be loaded from a database and/or updated in real-time using live data. It is not clear if the pilot would be able to dial into Netflix.

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First Class: Personalized Commentary on the View Through Your Window

Staring out at a landscape of clouds is awesome, but trying to make sense of a birds-eye-view cityscape can be a more engaging way to pass those sky-hours. So, imagine if you had live information about what you’re looking at through the window based on precise eye-tracking technology! Airbus patent B64C 1/14 promises a return to the early days when passengers “were fascinated by the fact that they are traveling through the air and may see the earth through the cabin windows in a bird’s perspective.”

By tracking your eyes (you can also point with your finger), the plane will triangulate what it is that’s caught your attention and provide details (“it’s the Eiffel Tower, originally constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair…”) on a semi-transparent window overlay screen. You’ll also have the option to save the information to your device via Bluetooth.

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Holographic Screen

Author Will Self once lamented that we’ve lost our sense of awe at “being hurled by vast jet engines six miles high, then impelled down an Aeolian slalom into another time zone.” This patent aims to get us back in touch with that sense of awe and curiosity; however, the “Minority Report-style in-flight entertainment” device will also offer movies and games or a screensaver showing “airline logos or moving fish in an aquarium.”

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Meeting Cabin: A Private Room on a Commercial Flight

Ever felt like you’d prefer to spend those long hours of flight time alone with your companion? Or having a serious, private meeting with your business partner? Even in First Class, it’s hard to escape the fact that you’re flying with hundreds of other people or to enjoy an experience of shared intimacy right when you need it most. Safran Seats GB Ltd proposes to give First Class and Business flyers a way out with these adaptable modular cabins.

Everything in the cabin is moveable, allowing different configurations and meeting safety requirements. Partition walls can be stowed during take-off and landing, and the table or other furniture moved from the aisle to allow access. Each seat unit could have one or more seats, and passengers could convert at least one of these seats into a bed.

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Meeting room in adaptable modular cabin

Despite its adaptability, the aircraft cabin will eat up valuable space, so its use is likely to come at a premium. But perhaps it’s worth it to have a room of one’s own or to get the rest of First Class asking themselves: “are they having a business meeting in there? Or are they napping?”

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Business: An Office (and a Bed) In The Sky

Business passengers tend to spend much of their time in the sky, and if they don’t have the budget for a luxury First Class ride, they can at least escape Economy Class and charge their Business ticket to the firm. Still, comfort and privacy are at a premium for such passengers — and these are needs that British Airways hopes to meet with the shell-like seating modules of patent B64D 11/06.

The sleek, herringbone formation of each seat unit maximizes space, giving business passengers room to stretch into the recess of the seat ahead. The seats are wide rather than deep (not least for “passengers of above average width”) and paired with a tail-shaped table of the same size (with room to stow precious things underneath).

By adding an ‘infill’ between the seat and the table, the whole thing is convertible into a “substantially continuous sleeping surface.” Sounds far more business-like than a bed. Converting this way rather than through a reclining mechanism saves precious grams from the fixture’s weight — which means saving fuel.

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Foldable swivel seats that maximize seat density

Other seating proposals for business class are more fixated on seating density than comfort and privacy. Patent B64D 11/06 (below) notes that because our ankles are narrower than our hips and shoulders, there’s no need to have as much aisle space below as above. Tapering the outline of the seats can offer more ground-level real estate to seated passengers, whether that space is used for legroom or to fit in more seats.

While it’s hardly Minority Report time for these business passengers, the patent reveals — to those not versed in the “art” of cabin arrangement — the geometry challenges that designers face, whereby an inch here or a degree of incline there can free up unexpected space when repeated across the whole cabin.

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Cabin: Food By Monorail

Which of us hasn’t sneered at the food cart squeezing along the aisle, banging stray ankles and blocking the path of anxious passengers on their way to the bathroom? Those days may be numbered. While First Class passengers will continue to enjoy the human touch (or at least that of a hyper-realistic android), the rest of the plane could be served food and drinks by this chirpy monopod.

Inspired by Martin Limanoff’s atomic age sketches for a service robot on rails, Sell GMBH proposes an aircraft monorail automat that skirts up and down the aisle delivering food to passengers and freeing up flight attendants to practice their safety dance routine. The mobile restaurant unit — likened to a sushi conveyer belt but better resembling WALL-E — would occupy a narrow footprint, freeing up aisle space for people to pass and sinking below deck to travel from one row of seating to another.

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Aircraft monorail in-flight service

Orders could be placed electronically, with “computer-aided logistics” ensuring the monopod has an efficient itinerary, serving everyone in good time. The monopod would act like a dumbwaiter lift, disappearing through a hatch to collect orders from a prep area below. This would free up further space for seating or leg room in the galley space the prep area usually occupies.

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Premium Economy: Sleep Leaning Forwards

Ever woken in the clouds to find a stranger sleeping on your shoulder? The days of awkward nap positions could be put behind us with patent B64D II/06: The Transport Vehicle Upright Sleep Support System. Attendants could distribute a backpack that transforms into a seated sleeping unit that attaches to your seat. And, for safety reasons, to you.

The unit hangs in front of you for you to lay your chest on. Resting your forehead on the cushion positions your face on a massage table-style hole so that you can breathe. (It also means fellow passengers will have a perfectly framed view of your sleeping face, but is this any less dignified than sleeping with your cheek up against the window?) There is even a little sleeve on the front of the unit to stop your arms from dangling.

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Economy: Immersive In-Flight Entertainment and Public Transport-Inspired Seating Arrangements

Some people try to sleep their way through a long flight; others value the guilt-free opportunity to binge on hours of low-demand entertainment. The innocent-sounding Headrest for a Passenger Seat for an Aircraft promises to immerse you in entertainment, descending in the form of a virtual reality (VR) helmet and “at least partially housing the head of the passenger,” providing blissful isolation (and viewing privacy) from fellow flyers.

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VR helmet offering music, movies and VR experiences

Offering music, movies and VR experiences, this total media center for the head could also facilitate work if paired with motion capture gloves and a virtual keyboard. The patent’s most Future Shock-y proposal is that the helmet would also offer individualized air conditioning, including the possibility to pipe in “natural or synthetic odorous substances” in the air (these would be mixed in a special pan hidden under your seat).

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Zig-Zag seats resembling public transport

Economy flyers know that airlines work around the clock to find ways of cramming more of us on board. “Standing room only” has still not been given the go-ahead, but French company Zodiac Seats believes that there are certain things that bus and train passengers accept that could work very well in the air. One of these is the idea that we would be okay with flying while facing (and slightly overlapping) fellow passengers.

Zodiac’s zig-zag formation is another acknowledgment that folks need more lateral space at shoulder level than at their ankles. With no immediately adjoining seat, Zodiac’s solution banishes the battle for the armrest.

More shoulder space may be welcome, but it comes at the cost of being weirdly close to the person opposite. It also means half the passengers would be flying “backward,” which might not be great for aviophobics. The patent also inspires the question: why do we accept facing others in some forms of transport but not on planes? Is it because we feel somewhat more vulnerable?

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Toilets: More of Them

No matter how many last-minute pees you do, even in the future, you will need the bathroom as soon as you’re on the plane — that’s a fundamental law of physics. A further law indicates that there will always be a queue, so you have to loiter nearby, followed by a hundred sets of forward-facing eyes. Boeing proposes to reduce waiting times by adding more toilet units and other time-saving bathroom devices.

The problem is that airlines can’t charge for a seat in the bathroom, so space remains at a premium. Boeing gets around this somewhat by its peculiar geometric arrangement of toilet cubicles, arranged to keep a small footprint. It also puts the sink in a communal area so that toilets aren’t taken up by folk who are simply there to wash their hands or check their hair. Sliding doors and fold-out baby-change facilities further reduce the burden on space.

For better or worse, Boeing also proposes a stand-up urinal for men. The most futuristic aspect, however, is a series of automatic lights that guide the user through each stage of their ablutions; for example, highlighting the TP dispenser at the appropriate moment. This will aid accessibility and could shave precious seconds off the process for flyers who usually fumble around an unfamiliar bathroom.

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Blue-Sky Thinking

“One of the phrases I get a lot is ‘If it’s not broken, why change it?’” admits seating designer Núñez Vicente. “So if passengers still fly in the worst economy class seats, why will we give them a better option? It makes money. That’s the airline’s goal at the end of the day, not to make your flight better.”

Vicente is, at best, half-right. After all, premium airlines are predicated on offering “better,” and engineers are searching for better ways to fuel our flights to exotic destinations. Fans of futuristic flying machines needn’t worry; designers will keep on finding ways to make our surroundings lightweight, efficient — and a little more sci-fi.

This article originally appeared on Hawaiianislands and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

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