Commercial airliners and business jets may come in a variety of different sizes and models, but at a superficial level, they all tend to look essentially the same—so much that the average layperson can’t even tell them all apart. Even the newest models on the market still bear significant similarities to the earliest commercial airliners that were designed nearly a century ago. But that could soon change as aircraft designers turn to artificial intelligence (AI) to generate new designs.
Researchers are already using generative AI models to explore new ways to optimize aircraft design, Boeing’s chief technology officer Todd Citron said during a panel discussion at the Sustainable Aerospace Together Forum, which Boeing hosted near Seattle last week. With machine-learning algorithms, AI can assimilate just about everything there is to know about aerodynamics and engineering and quickly spew out a highly optimized design of its own—one that looks nothing like the airplanes humans have built in the past.
When humans design a structure, they tend to repeat existing patterns, Citron explained. For example, the truss structures that are common in bridges are the result of humans repeating a pattern that has been proven to work. The same has been true for most airplane designs over the past century. However, when AI is tasked with generating a design from scratch, it doesn’t necessarily follow the same patterns as human engineers. “Because [AI] can put more complexity into its electronic brain than a human can, it can optimize over a broader space,” Citron explained.
“If you look at the machine learning-optimized structures, they just look inherently different. They almost look like an alien spaceship, because they don't have that regular structure that makes it simpler for one human to do a design,” he said. “So, the look of the designs will change as we pull that in, and that's what we're doing today.” While Boeing isn’t necessarily going to replace its fleet with new “alien spaceships,” engineers can use the unique AI-generated designs to glean new insights and think outside the box when designing aircraft and their various components.
When asked how he imagined new airplanes will look in the year 2040, Citron said there will likely be some changes to the shape of the airframes and the engines. “You might notice that the wings are very thin, based on work [Boeing is] doing together with NASA to drive greater aerodynamic efficiency, which means fewer emissions,” Citron said. “The engines may look different, and you may see a large open-rotor fan that drives much higher efficiency and lower emissions. So, I think there's a number of technologies you're going to see in that timeframe.”
Kirsten Rose, executive director of future industries at CSIRO, Australia’s government science agency, agreed that airplanes will likely look very different by 2040. During the panel discussion, she said that new technologies—especially generative AI—could change design parameters “in ways that we're only now imagining.” The aerospace industry today is “only now understanding the capability for optimization, which will drive efficiency, for design parameters and things like that,” she said. “So, I think we'll start to see that play through absolutely in the design and the enhancements of existing and new aircraft.”
AI isn’t the only emerging technology that is shaping the way new aircraft are designed. Boeing and other manufacturers are now also leveraging additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing technology, to create aircraft parts and tools more efficently. Between AI and new advancements in additive manufacturing, “you'll get even more interesting structures,” NASA chief technologist A.C. Charania said during the sustainability forum.
Citron added that additive manufacturing is much more sustainable than traditional or “subtractive” manufacturing, in which parts are made by carving out large blocks of raw materials—a process that creates a lot of waste. With subtractive manufacturing, “you're putting all this energy into removing material. By additive, it's adding material progressively. The energy savings is 50 percent or more, so inherent sustainability comes out of that.”
While new airplanes will be more efficient both to manufacture and to fly, perhaps the most important difference between the airplanes flying today and those we’ll see in 2040 won’t be a physical change that passengers will be able to see. Hopefully by that time, more flights will be running on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), or at least a blend of SAF and jet-A, the panelists agreed. Today SAF supplies are extremely limited, and it’s only available at a handful of airports worldwide. As the industry works to scale SAF production and build a supply chain, the conventional airplanes flying today as well as other new designs will be able to use the alternative fuel to cut back on carbon emissions.