The global pandemic is driving the technological revolution of the aviation sector, says Paul Cuatrecasas, CEO of Aquaa Partners and Author of Go Tech or Go Extinct

The aviation industry is barely recognisable from what it looked like just a few months ago. Tens of thousands of aircraft are grounded and passenger numbers plummeting by the day as countries seek to contain the virus by securing their borders, restricting flights and imposing strict quarantine rules.

It's bad news on the cargo front too, with global demand for air freight plunging 27.7% in April, according to IATA, as carriers struggle to turn a profit. In response, the industry is being forced to innovate, ramping up the pace of technology adoption in order to drive greater efficiency, with a host of exciting new developments on the horizon.

AI, robotics and machine learning technology

The need to reduce human contact to prevent the spread of the disease is fuelling demand for cutting-edge machine-led technology. Such is its exponential growth, that the value of artificial intelligence (AI) in the aviation market is expected to soar from $152.4 million in 2018 to a staggering $2.2 billion by 2025.

The potential usage is almost limitless: from the trialling of ultra HD 4K cameras combined with machine learning technology by air traffic management service NATS in 2019 to improve Heathrow Airport's landing capacity and punctuality to the first patented AI platform for security X-ray machines, announced by Synapse Technology last year.

AI is already widely-adopted in facial recognition, baggage check-in and fuel optimisation to improve the customer experience and drive efficiency. It's also used to predict when aircraft need to be worked on, with Delta Air Lines harnessing the technology to cut its maintenance delays by 98% in 2018. Beyond aircraft management, it can help airlines optimise ticket prices, with AI solutions specialist Faculty developing a model which provides forecasts that are between 70% to 80% accurate up to 90 days before travel.

Electric and green aircraft

The climate change agenda is driving the need for aircraft that cause less pollution. At the forefront of this green revolution are electric aircraft, pioneered by technology firm magniX, whose all-electric propulsion engine was installed in a Harbour Air Seaplanes de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver for an inaugural test flight last year. Taking it one step further, Airbus plans to send its E-Fan X hybrid prototype of a commercial passenger jet on its maiden flight by 2021.

While big strides are being made in the development of this new technology, however, the biggest stumbling block remains economic viability. Yet, we have found that if the battery's energy density is improved by a factor of four then an aircraft could carry 150 passengers and travel 600 nautical miles, meaning that, when scaled up, electric planes could carry out 50% of departures worldwide.

Renewable energy is another big area of technological development. In March, technology firm Prismatic Ltd announced the first successful flight of a solar-powered high altitude, long endurance unmanned aerial vehicle. It's only a matter of time before the technology is extended to commercial and cargo planes.

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Delivery drones

One of the biggest growth sectors is in drones used for delivery by companies such as Amazon. The sticking point, however, remains regulatory barriers, but as the technology becomes more advanced and widely available, many of those restrictions are expected to be lifted by civil aviation authorities across the world.

Autonomous flying taxis

Even more cutting-edge is the development of flying taxis. The market is already growing rapidly and is expected to top $1.5 trillion by 2040. Previously confined to science-fiction films like Blade Runner, flying cars could soon become a reality as the next evolutionary step after drones and autonomous vehicles. Uber and Toyota-backed Joby Aviation are both targeting commercial launches by 2023, with Airbus and Boeing also poised. Their widespread adoption is set to be further boosted by the rollout of 5G technology.

Effect of virtual meetings, 5G, 3D printing, tech giant competition

COVID-19 is fundamentally changing the way we work, with virtual conferences replacing face-to-face meetings. As more and more employees interact with their colleagues online, so the need to travel is reduced and this will only be accelerated by the implementation of 5G to speed up and improve interconnectivity.

Another technology that is hastening the decline in cargo is 3D printing. With the ability to produce goods more cheaply, efficiently and closer to market, it does away with the need to fly product halfway across the world. Last year, the global additive manufacturing industry eclipsed $10.4 billion and if that is anything to go by, it will continue to rising in that vein.

But perhaps the biggest threat facing mainstream operators is increasing competition from technology giants such as Amazon, Google and Uber, who are all keen to take market share, both on the passenger transportation and ecommerce delivery side. Then there are new and emerging transportation technologies including Elon Musk's Hyperloop, which can deliver passengers and cargo at a fraction of the speed of a plane.

Need to acquire or partner with smaller tech disruptors

Rather than fight technology, the aviation industry needs to embrace these latest advancements and come on board with smaller players and startups that are disrupting the market. Mergers or collaborations with such entities will allow aviation companies to stay one step ahead of their bigger competitors in an increasingly crowded market.

The aviation industry is clearly struggling right now in the wake of the worst crisis ever to hit the sector. But for those who view the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent themselves rather than an insurmountable challenge, now is the time to seize technological innovation by the horns.

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