Innovation on Display at the Paris Air Show

As a Boeing 787 Dreamliner thrust up into the sky in a near vertical take-off, few admiring the spectacle may have been reflecting upon high-tech trends in the aviation industry. However, not far away from where a commercial airliner with a 60-meter wingspan took off like a fighter jet, engineers, exhibitors and onlookers at the 2015 Paris Air Show were busy displaying and discussing a wide-range of emerging avionics technologies.

Attempting to capture and correctly articulate all of the many innovations on display at this year’s Paris Air Show would, to say the least, be a rather daunting task. Nonetheless, there were a few areas of emerging technologies which did seem to resonate more than others and gain traction with show participants.

Some of these included the increased use of composite materials for airframes, predictive maintenance technologies, ongoing work to build quieter and more efficient engines and smarter, more high-tech computerized avionics.

Many of these were on display at the air show’s CORAC Pavilion exhibit, called “Sky of Tomorrow.”  In total, the air show included more than 2,300 exhibitors from 48 countries, featuring aircraft such as the Falcon 8X, Airbus A350 and A400M. Bombadier’s CS 300 and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale were also on display.

The use of lighter, composite materials to make faster, more fuel-efficient airframes emerged as a huge focus at the Air Show.  Aircraft manufacturers are increasingly building with composites, low-density aluminum alloys and other materials to optimize performance.

In fact, the Boeing Dreamliner’s airframe and engine are widely known to contain a wide array of composite materials, factors which clearly contribute to its ability to launch an awe-inspiring vertical take-off.

The show was filled with companies dedicated to manufacturing composites, with some of them designing airplane fan blades out of textile and other materials. This trend seemed to cut across both military and commercial aviation development efforts at the show.

Furthermore, the use of wingtip devices such as “winglets” or “sharklets” can greatly reduce drag and improve fuel economy as well. It seems aviators can expect to see more of these technological advancements in the future as aircraft designers look to further improve airframe designs.

There is also a huge flow of emphasis upon improving maintenance, repair and overhaul; this includes the use of high-tech data analytics and technologies engineered for predictive maintenance.  Predictive or condition-based maintenance can use various diagnostic mechanisms such as small on-board sensors to better determine when parts of an aircraft may fail or reach the end of their service life. This reduces logistical burdens, saves money spent on repairs and better enables engineers to determine when something needs to be fixed or replaced.

The Paris Air Show’s website also highlights counter-rotating “open-rotor” engines as evidence of techniques now being worked on by engineers.

“The idea is to approach the propulsive efficiency of propeller-based engines while keeping noise levels and maintaining a flight speed at the level of the best current turbofans,” the website writes.

Other areas of exploration in various stages of development and experimentation are efforts to achieve hypersonic flight and the potential use of “smart skins” wherein sensors are built into an aircraft’s fuselage.

Given the apparent promise shown by many of these trends, it might be safe to envision a future with faster, more maneuverable and fuel-efficient aircraft. These planes of tomorrow will likely be engineered with better avionics, improved performance and lower maintenance costs.