Jun 17, 2022 / Design
The future of mobility is looking up
A supersonic passenger jet. A manned aerial racing league. How we get around is about to change a lot sooner than you think.
If you follow this space, you know that at Boom we’re hard at work ushering in a new era of supersonic flight. Airspeeder is tackling the transportation future from another angle with the world’s first racing series for crewed flying electric cars.
Boom Supersonic’s Chief Technology Officer Brian Durrence joined Airspeeder Founder Matt Pearson on a Future of Mobility panel hosted by IWC Schauffhausen during Watches and Wonders in March. Afterward, we teamed up with Airspeeder for a Twitter chat to expand upon the topic and discuss what both companies are doing to reimagine what transportation will look like in the near future.
Talk about “the future of mobility.” What does that mean and how is it different from how we get around today?
Brian: We believe that travel is a net good for humanity and that the engineering work we’re doing today will have a direct impact on our ability to connect people across cultures tomorrow. Think of an overseas vacation. Today, you’re talking about essentially a full day’s travel to get to your destination and again to get back home. So, how many people are opting to travel domestically instead? Now imagine if a trip to Europe or East Asia takes as long as a cross-country flight. That suddenly opens up possibilities for a lot more people and makes our world a little bit smaller.
Airspeeder: From an engineering perspective, we’re operating in the most exciting time in history. We are rapidly transitioning to new energy sources and in doing so challenging long-established notions of how we drive, fly, service, and even own vehicles. With UAM [Urban Air Mobility], we are on the cusp of a revolution that will liberate our cities from congestion and fundamentally change the way that we live. It’s exciting to contribute to giving people such vital time back with a solution that is so much more in tune with our collective global requirement to transition to clean-air forms of transport.
Let’s talk about design. How does design thinking inform the development of new and experimental aircraft?
Brian: The design of our aircraft unlocks the power of supporting technologies to make supersonic travel safe, sustainable, and economically viable. Design thinking is incorporated into every aspect at Boom, including how we organize our teams to facilitate collaboration and innovation. The very design of our buildings and hangars promotes the free flow of information and ideas, from the open-concept seating arrangements to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook our manufacturing facility. Perhaps most importantly, the design engineers have direct access to the aircraft as it’s being built. This provides a direct linkage between the digital design world and the real world of hardware.
Airspeeder: Our approach takes into account both technical constraints related to the desired flight dynamics and aesthetic constraints aimed at obtaining a well-proportioned and refined product. In the initial phase, both on paper and in rapid 3D modeling or aero analysis (CFD), we do not hesitate to create many concepts very different from each other to be able to compare the results and find the best compromise. Last but not least, our design more than anything is inspired to get people to fall in love with this new technology, by drawing on inspiration from 1930s racing birds. Also, it’s timeless and looks like it belongs in the future with elements of the past.
How often are design updates incorporated into the process of designing a new aircraft?
Brian: For us, constantly. For example, during the conceptual design phase, configuration studies compete head to head, weighing the overall benefits and merits of each candidate. The winners get to move on and become part of the go-forward configuration.
Airspeeder: The Alauda engineering team has an agile approach to design updates compared to traditional Aeronautics approaches. We are implementing weekly modifications on the hardware and software and fly every week to test our solutions. We do not work the “traditional way” as batches or MSN implementations on commercial aircraft. We continuously develop and improve the vehicle, like in Motorsport and populate the updates to our fleet when validated.
What sort of data do engineers look at during test flights to help inform their future decisions?
Brian: A lot of the data we look at will have to do with efficiency. Obviously, we want the aircraft to run as lean as possible to optimize performance, sustainability, and cost, so we’ll be looking at the best balance of those factors.
Airspeeder: Our engineering team at Alauda Aeronautics follows all vehicle parameters from the ground using a telemetry system. The focus is on monitoring our batteries, electric motors, and controllers but also vehicle flight dynamics—i.e. position, speed, and acceleration—in 3D space. Data has graphic representations and alert levels to trigger decisions regarding normal/abnormal vehicle behavior. We then send feedback to the vehicle test Engineer and pilot with data/actions. After testing, we analyze recorded telemetry data to capture performance details.
How different is the process of building an entirely new aircraft versus iterating on a previous design?
Brian: We want people to travel more without worrying about adverse effects on the planet. So, we’ve challenged our team to design Overture to be an environmentally responsible supersonic aircraft. We’re designing Overture to operate net-zero carbon flying on 100% sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). Our approach to sustainability extends from how we design and test our aircraft to how we operate and maintain our manufacturing facilities. Boom is guided by 3 principles—speed, safety, and sustainability. We can't achieve our mission without delivering on all 3.
Airspeeder: It is very different in all aspects, mainly schedule and performance. When you design a new vehicle from a blank sheet of paper, respecting the regulations, you have a full “freedom” with a major target: performance. You can develop innovative solutions without so many constraints. But the process is long (months and years!) and very expensive. When you iterate a new design, you are more constrained by existing parts. The first issue: where does modification end? Do I change the full wing or only a spar? If I change the wing, do I also have to change the fuselage? The second issue is then modifying all flying machines to match that iteration, by throwing away previous design solutions and parts, manufacturing new parts, and retrofitting the fleet. It is faster and cheaper but sacrifices performance.
Watch the full IWC Signature Talk here.