12 May 2014
As science fiction writer William Gibson quipped, "The future has already arrived. It's just unevenly distributed." The National Aeronautic Association Collier Trophy Committee is a great place to see present-day glimpses of our industry's future, and this year I was privileged to serve on it for a third time. There were two finalists, Northrop Grumman's X-47B (the winner) and Pratt & Whitney's PurePower Geared Turbofan (GTF) engine, which superbly illustrated two radically different aspects of our future.
First, a few thoughts about the non-finalists. I was surprised Boeing's P-8 USN maritime patrol aircraftdidn't do better. The P-8 is the rarest of beasts: a well-run and reasonably priced defense program. Also, it got the best free advertising imaginable thanks to its role in the MH370 search (the Collier Trophy, in theory, goes to a platform or system "...the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year."). But it wasn't enough. One view expressed was that derivatives of civil aircraft, even with complicated mission equipment packages, just didn't cut it as great aeronautical achievements. The history of Collier winners shows that to be a consistent belief.
Next (in no particular order here) was the X-51A WaveRider. This Scramjet-powered craft looked like an ideal choice...for the Collier award in 2045. Scramjets offer the remarkable and futuristic promise of Mach 5+ flight, and last year saw the X-51's first successful test. But (big negative here): this was the fourth test, and the first three didn't go so great. The successful flight last year was just for six minutes, but that was the longest ever air-breathing hypersonic flight. This is hard work; starting a scramjet is likened to lighting a match in a hurricane. While flying the X-51 was technically impressive, it's hard to think of any practical applications for this technology anytime soon. We might see a scramjet-powered weapon in the 2030s, or we might not, given the technology risks. And USAF's next bomber and ISR planes will not use scramjets. Also, remember X-30/NASP, HOTOL, and other hypersonic '80s concepts? You can forget your dream of flying from New York to Tokyo in an hour for the next 40 years, at least.
Collier space candidates this year included NASA's Deep Space Network and Lunar Laser Communications Demonstration, Orbital Science's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, andVoyager. Since I don't cover space I asked Teal's space analyst, my good friend Marco Cáceres, for his view, which follows: "I'd have to go with Voyager because it made it to interstellar space. Nothing else that the human race has created has ever left our solar system. Voyager 1 is expected to pass near another star in about 40,000 years. It also carries time capsules containing information about our world, our species, and our civilizations. Well, you're a Star Trek buff... you know how the story ends..." Marco was sufficiently intrigued to write his own column about the space contenders; you can find it at tinyurl.com/mk5ar59. I highly recommend it.
Finally, there was the Atlas and Gamera human powered helicopter team (see my March 2012 for their first Collier appearance). I love these guys. But they remain the ultimate dark horse. When asked about the utility of their highly impressive creations, they invoked the prospect of flying bicycles. That alone merits their inclusion, if not an actual Collier trophy.
Now, the two finalists. Both are backed by solid engineering and good, experienced companies, but the X-47 offers a long-term vision of future air combat; the GTF offers a more imminent vision of lower fuel consumption, pollution, and noise. The X-47 inspires aircraft designers and futuristic dreamers; the GTF inspires industry analysts and economists. I fall into that second bucket, and voted accordingly.
Engines will never be as sexy as airplanes, let alone stealthy, remotely-piloted carrier landing combat jets. Engine technology is hidden from view, and usually more incremental. But engines determine aircraft performance more than any other factor. And in industry metrics, GTF was miles ahead of all the other contenders. With thousands of orders, this product will generate billions of dollars in economic activity and thousands of jobs. Pratt has returned to a position of industry leadership. It also forced Airbus, Boeing, General Electric, and Safran to play by Pratt's rules, and launch a new generation of single aisle jetliners.
Since PurePower won't enter service until next year, it may have a better chance with next year's Collier. In fact, for the next decade, time is on Pratt's side. PurePower has an impressive upgrade roadmap that will likely allow them to gain market share on their A320neo family application. They've managed to protect a lot of the technology with patents, for a certain amount of time.
In the next decade, Pratt will face serious challenges, as you might expect when a new technology prospers. General Electric doesn't use a gearbox on its Leap-1 series, but it has a superb engine (perhaps worthy of its own Collier), and there's no reason why it couldn't introduce a geared version, or a new geared engine of its own. GE's purchase of Avio last year will give it access to gearbox technology, which is probably the point of the acquisition. Earlier this year, Rolls-Royce unveiled its UltraFan concept engine, which uses a gearbox too. Success breeds imitators, which in the engine world means technologically-adept competitors. In GE's case, they also have very deep pockets.
The X-47 won because it demonstrated last year that autonomous carrier catapult take-offs and trap landings were feasible for large UAVs. NG met a significant aeronautical challenge, and future designers will learn from their experiences. But UCAVs won't displace inhabited combat jets for decades, if ever. Worse, the only practical application for the X-47 – the USN's UCLASS program – is in terrible shape. Even if the Navy actually goes ahead with the program, they're set to go with a less ambitious, less stealthy, lower-cost competitor, such as General Atomics' Sea Avenger. In other words, X-47 and its stealthy peers from Lockheed Martin and Boeing may not get beyond the prototype stage.
Geared turbofan technology is clearly disruptive, in the best sense of the term. The X-47, by contrast, is not at all disruptive. It will likely stay a demonstrator. Still, a key Collier objective is to inspire people, and the X-47 did great with that. It represents a worthy Collier trophy winner.