“Artificial intelligence is a factor in almost everything we do in life now. So many things are enabled by A.I., starting with the kinds of warnings you get in cars these days – major safety factors. So, A.I. is an increasing factor [in aerospace].

Simplistically, if you rely on A.I., you have the potential of eliminating the workload on pilots – and maybe ultimately pilots altogether. When you consider that probably 85% of aircraft accidents are due to pilot error, it stands to reason that if you get rid of them you might increase the safety factor. Now, I am a pilot myself and I don’t want to eliminate that part of it. I have over 10,000 hours now, and I’ve loved every one of them. But still, if I’m approaching minimums [when landing] a jet, I’d like to have auto pilot. With A.I., the autopilot can do the approach more accurately than I can all by myself.

The military is another huge application for advanced composites. The reason that our Predator drones are so effective is because they are light, and we are able to fly off for up to 48 hours without refueling – an amazing accomplishment. I think we are just beginning to see the activity of unpiloted airplanes in various versions for military actions can be done much less expensively. You have the huge advantage of endurance, so you are already up in the air when a problem occurs, and you can take action immediately.”

Fueling Future Aircraft

“The question of fuels – hydrogen, electric or hydrocarbons – that’s still very much up in the air. I think there is a place for all. But I also happen to believe that the CO2 factor is overrated as a problem. In fact, CO2 is the thing that makes everything you see in our life green. It’s essential to plant life. It’s essential to all life. The problem with air pollution is primarily carbon particulates, not CO2.

Even so, hydrogen is a natural fuel and there is plenty of that in the universe. Of course, electric energy has its advantage also. But the amount of energy – the power you can get – in liquid fuel, namely jet fuel, at this time is at least 20 times and maybe as many as 50 times more than you can get with batteries. Batteries will continue to improve, but for long-endurance airplanes that technology is not here. For advanced air mobility, perhaps it is because those missions are relatively short.”

Q & A Session

Coughlin: What do you see as the next couple of things that the aerospace industry needs to do to take advantage of the 5th generation of composites that’s different from the 4th generation?

Blue: As I mentioned, the primary advantage of the 5th generation is reduction in knock-down factors – knock-down for high humidity and high temperature – and thermoplastics gives you that, potentially up to 20%. That kind of improvement you have to consider if you build airplanes. It’s the combination of innovation that is constantly going on, particularly with composites, because of the inherent physical properties of strength and stiffness that are critical to designing airplanes.

John Busel: You brought up A.I. and smart composites – understanding what’s going on in the system at all times. [The ability to] collect all of that information, read it and record things so you can improve on how the aircraft is performing almost at any moment in time. That’s pretty sophisticated.

Blue: Well, that’s right. And that goes back to A.I. The fact is that computers can analyze all kinds of parameters on a continual basis at a speed far greater than human beings. And that’s good. And A.I. can sort through the noise and important factors you need to look at. So, a combination of A.I. and composites has tremendous potential for improving safety, reducing costs and having better products all the way around.

Coughlin: You talked about if you don’t design with the end material in mind, then you’re not taking full advantage of the composite. So what advice do you have for folks wading into this area and looking at the different options available?

Blue: First of all, have fun! There’s nothing more fun than making better products of all descriptions. But, as I said earlier, you’ve got to combine that with realism. We didn’t even talk about autoclaves and ovens and the potential of new resin systems for processes that are perhaps out-of-autoclave and out-of-oven. And that means lower costs, less time and perhaps better products as a result.

Coughlin: What do you think the first applications, in terms of market pull, will be for advanced air mobility?

Blue: I suppose it’s the urban part of advanced air mobility. Again, the weather factor is something I remain uncomfortable with. Flying is great when the weather is good, but you can get in a lot of trouble if you are not prepared for bad weather. And unfortunately, weather is a factor we all have to deal with.

I suppose it’s theoretically easier to control air mobility vehicles than it is to control unpiloted cars. The two technologies perhaps go together. If we are able to show that automated driving cars work and produce a better safety result all around, that will tell you it’s probably applicable to airplanes. In the meantime, I would not want to go up in an airplane that was totally without a pilot.

Remotely piloted airplanes for military use are something else. They have all the advantages of the mission in terms of endurance … and not having to worry about the physical needs of pilots. I’m a believer in remotely and unpiloted A.I.-enabled use of these vehicles. But we are not quite there yet. Will we get there? I would say almost certainly we will.

Susan Keen Flynn is managing editor of Composites Manufacturing magazine. Email comments to sflynn@keenconcepts.net.

Aviation pioneer Linden S. Blue is an owner and vice chairman of San Diego-based General Atomics.