Flight delays, carbon emissions, less legroom – flying’s luxury image is long gone. Still, airplanes have the same greenhouse gas emissions they had years ago. While the Environmental Protection Agency is working to put a change into the books, aeronautical engineers are already hard at work looking toward the future of air flight.

“Aircraft technology has been relatively stagnant for the past 70 years,” says Pat Anderson, Ph.D., director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“The next dramatic step we’re looking to take is in propulsion technology,” he says. In other words, using electric and hybrid electric/gas engines for aircraft.

Hybrid and electric engines have been able to evolve quickly in cars because the automotive industry is less preoccupied with weight and more concerned about volume, Anderson says. “Airplanes are the opposite. We are incredibly sensitive about weight,” he says.

While cars aim to be lighter overall, the weight of a battery won’t stop them from their intended purposes of moving forward on the ground. In a plane, too much weight means it might struggle to even get in the air.
The solution lies in new technology that reduces weight, while still allowing for the fuel efficiency typical of hybrid engines.

“Fuel cells and other breakthroughs are happening all the time, and it may enable more efficient aircraft quicker than we thought,” Anderson says. He points out that the sound of a plane flying overhead can be dangerous to protected parks and wildlife, so the reduced noise and air pollution afforded by hybrid engines is an added benefit.

While the research teams at Embry-Riddle1 have managed to work these advancements into smaller test aircraft, the challenge now is developing the current science for application in larger, heavier aircraft as well.
Anderson is looking even further ahead: “A fission reactor could be a game changer,” he says.

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2As of 10/31/15, the Oppenheimer International Growth Fund had 1.4% of its assets invested in Airbus Group SE, which has a longstanding relationship with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Fund holdings are dollar-weighted based on assets and are subject to change.