Aviation engineers are constantly looking for ways to push the envelope regarding aircraft design and technology. Clearly, much progress in aviation technology has been made over the past 100 years, but it was not without challenges. Since aviation is one of the most well-known high-reliability industries, every design change and invention is subject to considerable scrutiny. While noteworthy strides are being made in many domains of aviation engineering, this blog will focus on the challenges engineers face in designing the next generation of airframes.
The airframe makes up the basic structure of all aircraft, synonymous with the human body's skeleton. The airframe includes components like the fuselage, wing, tail assembly, and landing gear and excludes the engine and instrumentation components. Owing to its relative size as compared to other components on the aircraft, the airframe is widely regarded as the most critical structure on an airplane. Historically, improvements have focused on increasing the airframe's strength and reliability while decreasing its weight and drag. Such advances in technology have helped lower costs at every level, from the manufacturer down to the end-user, and have helped reduce the aviation industry's effect on the environment.
The first significant challenge airframe engineers face is filtering through the many proposed changes to conventional aircraft architecture. In this realm, many concepts have been put forward for consideration, including rocket-jet aircraft with very small wings, tri-fuselage designs, truss-based concepts, and more. While such designs promise increased fuel efficiency and speed, engineers are tasked with establishing which are feasible with current technologies.
Engineers are also working on designing future airframes with advanced laminarity. When it comes to fluids such as air, flow can either be characterized as laminar, turbulent, or transitional. Since fuel efficiency and trip comfort are optimized at laminar flow states, there is a constant push towards designing an airframe compatible with such conditions. To achieve this, a focus towards establishing wings and nacelles with a high lift-to-drag ratio has become a priority.
Another challenge for next-generation airframes is the capability to perform at both high and low speeds. Particularly, many novel airframe designs display incredible efficiency at high speeds but decreased fuel efficiency and maneuverability at low speeds such as instances where climbing and landing are taking place. Additionally, as many airlines and travelers are beginning to demand a revamped cabin design that favors more room and entertainment options, engineers are faced with the challenge of adding more room without compromising efficiency and aerodynamic performance.
Another consideration for next-generation airframes is innovative wing design. Wings contribute much to an aircraft's aerodynamic efficiency and overall performance, but designing such structures comes at a significant cost to manufacturers and airlines alike. Therefore, the challenge is to find the materials and design that would satisfy customers' performance requirements and cost appetite.
Future airframes must also account for the move towards advanced fuselage designs. For example, many high-efficiency aerodynamic concepts include fuselage shapes that differ from the conventional tubelike structure. Also, several airlines are taking VTOL technology into consideration for next-generation passenger and cargo flights. It is then incumbent on engineers to reconcile such changes with other components of the airframe, including the wings and nacelles. Here, several military aircraft, including the F-35B, are paving the way by making it possible to restructure conventional airframes to fit more demanding technologies.
Finally, one of the more recent yet ever-important challenges is the push towards a more eco-friendly manufacturing process. Everything from the fuel efficiency of the final product to the manufacturing method of the various parts plays a role in the total environmental impact caused by the aviation industry. Currently, air travel only makes up 2.5-4% of global CO2 emissions. Still, as other sectors are working diligently to create greener solutions, that number will continue to increase as compared to other industries. While the biggest change in environmental impact will likely come from alternative and renewable fuel sources, there is still much that can be done on the aircraft design side to help.
Besides designing airframes with more fuel-efficient designs, engineers are also looking to use more environmentally friendly materials in their designs. For example, carbon-based composites are becoming more prevalent because they are more lightweight and can be 3D printed, reducing material loss. Finally, choosing renewable materials can help mitigate obsolete structures ending up in landfills.
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