Pod Planes Could Change the Future of Travel

February 19, 2018

Hypersonic, electric propulsion and triple decker.  Do you think you have seen everything when it comes to new aircraft concepts? Well, here comes the pod plane.

 

It is another revolutionary aircraft design, created by Switzerland's Federal Polytechnic Institute. The aircraft aims to transform the way people and cargo travel.

 

While the concept might be boundary pushing, the inspiration is mundane: the shipping container.

 

Futuristic and Disruptive

 

Because of its simple design, the shipping container is one of the most disruptive inventions of the past century.

 

Shipping containers allow cargo to move inexpensively from one mode of transportation to another and have facilitated the development of the supply chains.

 

Transfer from truck to giant cargo ship to freight train is tended to be seamless and the container is used repeatedly, drastically reducing the cost of long-distance shipping.

 

That is the magic of inter-modal transport -- and it is something the futuristic and potentially game-changing Clip-Air concept hopes to emulate.

 

Clip-Air is composed of two elements. There is the flying component, including air-frame, cockpit and engines.

 

Then there are the capsules, a number of detachable pods that can act as cabin or cargo hold, depending on the chosen configuration.

 

The air-frame is based on a flying-wing concept, reminiscent of a stealth bomber. Some may even find some similarities to the X-48, an experimental pilot-less aircraft developed for NASA a decade ago.

 

Versatile Design

 

A pair of long metal legs protruding from each side of the flying wing, and containing the landing wheels mechanism, keep the air-frame high above the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: EPFL/ENAC/TRANSP-OP

 

The height is to allow capsules to hang from the belly of the aircraft, not unlike the way warplanes carry bombs and missiles.

 

These capsules could carry either passengers or cargo.

 

In fact, while Clip-Air's speed and range is expected to be on a par with that of modern mid-sized airliners, the beauty of the concept rests precisely upon the versatility provided by the capsules.

These modules can be adapted to simultaneously carry a wide range of cargo and passenger combinations.

 

The capsules can also be easily attached and detached from the airframe, making it possible for aircraft to achieve very quick rotations on the ground.

 

Claudio Leonardi, who manages the Clip-Air project at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Lausanne, says this will allow operators to maximize use of the airframe, the most expensive component.

 

Seamless Transfer

 

Passengers will be able to board capsules well before the flight -- goodbye to aisle jams.

 

As with shipping containers, Clip-Air capsules could be transfer onto trucks and trains, opening up a world of possibilities, not only for freight operators but also for the airline industry.

 

Operators could also market multi-modal itineraries that start or end well beyond the airport.

 

'Brilliant Engineering'

 

Passengers might board a capsule at a local bus station and wake up in another city on the other side of the country, or planet, after a road, air and rail journey during which they did not leave their seat.

 

So what are the chances of this ever happening?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: EPFL/ENAC/TRANSP-OP

 

Rather slim, according to Addison Schonland, founder of Airinsight, a consultancy providing market intelligence about the aviation industry.

 

"Although it may be brilliant from an engineering point of view, it is going to be very tough to make it work commercially," Schonland says.

 

"It would need to compete with proven and well-established technologies, and, frankly, it is dubious whether the market will be ready for such a radical new concept, even in the long term.”

 

"In any case, if the concept is ever to take off, I would see it working for cargo first."

 

Clip-Air researchers are well aware of the challenges, research and tests that are needed to validate the concept.

 

Leonardi, however, remains adamant about his ultimate goal to build an aircraft able to fly simultaneously three capsules with the capacity to carry 150 passengers each.

 

"We are using only technologies and materials that are already in use and well known to the industry," he says.

 

Clip-Air's researchers, who are also looking into the possibility of using bio fuels or liquid hydrogen as alternative fuels, have already initiated some contacts with the aerospace industry.

 

Obtaining support from one of the major industry players would be a game-changer, and the team are hoping to hear from anyone interested.

 

In the meantime, Leonardi's crew is preparing to build a small-scale Clip-Air prototype: a 10-meter drone that, regardless of the long-term outlook for modular aviation, is sure to capture the imagination of onlookers and aviation visionaries alike.

 

Ros, Miquel (2017). "Clip Air: How pod planes could change travel forever". Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/clip-air-pod-airplane-concept/index.html.

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