Some inventors from Airbus were recently granted the following patent.
If you follow the link you will see that the patent is essentially for the design of a passenger aircraft that can travel at speeds of up to Mach 4.5 using certain advanced technologies. The invention contemplates an aircraft with three different kinds of engines for three different stages of flight. The first engine type would be used for liftoff of the aircraft, the second would take it up to the altitude that it is supposed to fly at, and the third would let it cruise as speeds that border on the hypersonic. Although I have not read the patent, I suspect that the innovation that is being claimed here is the single piece of equipment (i.e., the aircraft) being designed to work with the three engine technologies in three different stages of flight, and that the innovation is not in the inventions of the engine types themselves, although there could be some optimization/modification of the engines being contemplated for the application at hand. There also ought to be some innovative ideas related to the shape of the aircraft and the placement of the engines.
Of course, filing patents is all about putting ideas that you consider implementable on the record and being acknowledged as the person who “owns” the idea, but it does not necessarily imply that the patents have been really implemented or are implementable in a practical sense in the near future. In my past history, I have been fortunate to have worked, in most cases with other people, on many concepts that have been patented, some of which have made it into real implementations, and many that have not.
In the case of this particular patent, I have my serious doubts about the design becoming reality in any practical sense for the purpose of moving passengers. Factors that make me a skeptic include the development costs, the cost of the aircraft itself, its efficiency in terms of the cost of moving each passenger per mile, and finally the real need in our world for this kind of technology today. In many cases patents are filed purely as a defensive measure, to let people know that you got the idea first, or to serve as a negotiating tool with your competition. That having been said, I cannot completely discount the possibility of somebody somewhere convincing a military organization somewhere to spend billions of dollars for the purposes of building something based on this patent that improves our capability in the realm of waging war and killing people. You do not have to look too far to see this kind of foolishness going on today. There is also a new field of commercial space flight that is emerging these days, where paying passengers can be given rides into space, for which some of this technology may be applicable. But if this idea becomes successful in that realm, only the super rich who can afford to pay humongous amounts of money for one-time thrills will be able to afford it.
People might argue that my viewpoint regarding the practical use of this technology is typical of those who have no real vision for the future. After all, most of the technology that has been developed that keeps the world going today had a cost associated with it, and if people had not invested in these technologies, we would not be where we are today in terms of capabilities, lifestyles, convenience and comfort. But how much of convenience and comfort does a human being really need? There is also the trickle down factor to be considered, where technology that is developed for one limited scenario bleeds into more general usage. This is particularly true about innovations that have come out of the space program that have found their way into every day use. Fair enough! But, at the same time, the innovation that comes from the space program is considered useful all in itself even if there were no immediate secondary benefits. This is because we human beings want to know more about the Universe we live in. We want to advance our knowledge. Can some similar case be made for the benefits of developing of a passenger aircraft as contemplated in the patent?
We know that the concept of a super-fast aircraft did not work out from an economic perspective in the case of the Concorde (which was also a relatively much slower aircraft). There is even the possibility that new aircraft technologies that have been introduced recently can end up not being successful in the long run. Aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 are huge risks for their manufacturers, and it is quite possible that the companies may not even recoup their expenses over the lifetimes of the aircraft. The aircraft being contemplated in the patent would cost much more to develop, purchase and operate. All things considered, will Boeing or Airbus even attempt to build a passenger aircraft that travels this fast?
Regardless, even if there was enough of a motivation to try to develop an aircraft as contemplated in the invention, and even if there were enough people willing to pay for flying in the aircraft so that a profit could be made in spite of the monumental developmental and manufacturing cost, what kind of real world scenario really demands/needs such a capability as far as speed is concerned? Most leisure travelers are unlikely to be able to afford to fly such an aircraft. If at all, this could turn into a business tool, a military boondoggle, or a toy for rich people. (I believe that when it comes to conducting business, we are definitely capable of coming up with some new reasoning for needing to use an aircraft of this type, finding a way to justify the cost based on what is likely to be some kind of hokey cost benefit analysis. After all, there are a lot of companies today that still think it makes sense to own and use private luxury jets. This is how business works.) In my mind the above scenarios would amount to the use of technology just because it can exist and not because it is necessary. Basically this would be about spending without having a good reason to do so. What good will come out of any of it?
There is some commonality of this scenario with the story of a lot of the technology being developed in recent years in the field of electronics and communications. The significant driver for advancements in this field is entertainment (perhaps it actually all starts out with porn). Companies want to outdo their competition in this business, so that people with money to burn (and sometimes even people who cannot afford it) will try to buy their product. A lot of resources of all kinds are spent in this regard, and the primary motivation is creating wealth and putting money into the pockets of those involved. This is also my story, having worked for many years in the industry to make a living by advancing technologies for the purposes of delivering entertainment. I suppose there is nothing wrong with all of this. This is the way capitalism works.
How much of the impact of new technologies really trickles down to the people whose lives really need to be improved? I have a lot of doubt in this regard about a lot of the stuff that is being worked on today. As I grow older I have more and more difficulty coming to terms with the development and use of technology just for technology’s sake. I hope that the aircraft described above just remains a concept in somebody’s mind.