✈️ #19: The Hype Cycle of aviation

⏱️ In short

  • The Gartner Hype Cycle is a great way to visualize the progress that new technologies make towards full societal acceptance.

  • TNMT.com created a Hype Cycle for new technologies in aviation.

  • This issue gives an overview of how far aviation’s emerging technologies are and when (or if) we can expect to see them at our airports.

Want to know more? Scroll some more ⬇️

An increasing number of technology trends are competing for a position in the foundation of the future of aviation. A good way to demonstrate the maturity of a technological trend is through a Hype Cycle. Those working in IT probably know the Hype Cycle from Gartner, a company that, among other things, provides this tool for understanding the general societal acceptance of new technology.

The Gartner cycle consists of five main stages:

  1. Technology Trigger: A potential technology breakthrough kicks things off. Early proof-of-concept stories and media interest trigger significant publicity, though the technology may not yet be available for practical use.

  2. Peak of Inflated Expectations: Early publicity produces a number of success stories — often accompanied by scores of failures. Some companies take action; many do not.

  3. Trough of Disillusionment: Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters. An often difficult stage to survive.

  4. Slope of Enlightenment: More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.

  5. Plateau of Productivity: The final phase, mainstream adoption starts to take off. The technology's broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

TNMT, part of the Lufthansa Innovation Hub, published a Hype Cycle specifically for emerging technologies in aviation:

Image by TNMT.com, inspired by Gartner.

A quick walkthrough

I will provide an update on the status of the aforementioned technologies and explain why they are placed in specific phases. Let's begin on the right of the graph, where we see technologies that are closest to implementation.

Plateau of Productivity

I can be concise about this phase: according to TNMT, none of the technologies have reached this stage yet. If you've visited an airport recently, it's easy to see why—they're simply not there yet. Fortunately, they're on their way, so please read on ⬇

Slope of Enlightenment

It seems that Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) will be the first revolutionary technology to be implemented on a larger scale.

While there are numerous drawbacks to using SAF on a large scale—such as high production costs, the fact that it is not emission-free, and its high energy consumption during production—there is one undeniable advantage: it is currently the only technology that can be immediately deployed to significantly reduce the carbon emissions of aviation. An increasing number of airlines are mixing SAF with their regular kerosene, and policymakers worldwide are creating legislation to mandate a minimum percentage of SAF in future flights. There is still a long way to go before SAF is used more frequently than kerosene, but the Plateau of Productivity is within sight.

Autonomous Flight has also survived the Trough of Disillusionment and ascended to the Slope of Enlightenment. Well done!

However, there are different stages of autonomous flight implementation, and not all of them are at the same level of maturity, especially in terms of societal acceptance. Companies like Xwing and Reliable Robotics have demonstrated that it is possible to operate an aircraft autonomously in a safe manner. Cargo transportation is expected to be the first sector of commercial aviation to fully implement this technology. By not having passengers on board, the risks associated with this emerging technology are minimized. The American company Pyka is propelling autonomous flight for cargo aircraft rapidly up the slope.

The societal acceptance of autonomous flight for transporting people lags behind that of cargo transportation, which is only logical. The company Merlin Labs is developing a system that can enable large commercial jets to fly autonomously. However, the initial implementations of this system will focus on reducing the workload for pilots before they are phased out of the cockpit.

The first full implementation of this technology is likely to take place in smaller aircraft, such as the Cessna Caravan utilized by Xwing and Reliable Robotics, or small eVTOL aircraft.

Trough of Disillusionment

For eVTOL to adopt autonomous technologies, it first needs to traverse the Trough. Few technologies have experienced a higher Peak of Inflated Expectations than eVTOL. The marketing departments of companies like Joby and Wisk have been flooding the internet with impressive renders of futuristic aircraft flying over major cities. Now, it's time to retain investors and the public's interest by delivering the first models and demonstrating how they will operate. The website eVTOLinsights.com features a compelling article about how the Paris Olympics in August 2024 could be a turning point for this industry.

I can be brief about the other two technologies in the Trough, as they're unlikely to materialize. TNMT labels Airships and Supersonic Flight as "Obsolete before plateau," a conclusion I believe is accurate. Airships never truly recovered after the Hindenburg disaster, and supersonic flight introduces more problems than it resolves.

There is a good chance that we will never see the supersonic Boom Overture in action. It will still be great for on a poster.

Peak of Inflated Expectations

Space Travel feels like an outlier in this graph, primarily because the other technologies aim to enhance everyday life by making travel faster and more sustainable. While it's undeniable that space travel occurs at high speed, the likelihood of it being anything more than a luxury for the ultra-rich is slim. Attracting billionaires willing to pay for an exclusive trip has catapulted space travel to the graph's peak. Now, space entrepreneurs must identify a profitable business model to navigate the impending Trough.

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I am far more optimistic about the chances of Electric Aircraft reaching the Plateau of Productivity. Especially recent news about new aircraft designs and batteries with a higher energy density has been inflating the expectations.

More companies are releasing dazzling renders of new, efficient designs and engines, all promising cheaper and faster short to mid-range travel. However, it's now time to make good on those promises by establishing sustainable business models and finding consumers willing to pay the higher early adopter prices. TNMT predicts that it will take 5 to 10 years before this technology matures enough to be commercially viable, so this emerging industry must keep the public engaged a bit longer before tickets can be sold.

Innovation Trigger

Finally, Hydrogen has been making rapid strides through the Innovation Trigger phase over the past few months. Companies like ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen have recently shown that it's possible to fly a commercial turboprop aircraft using hydrogen, creating inflated expectations.

However, for a technology to be viable for daily operations, it must do more than just enable flight. With regard to producing, transporting, and storing hydrogen onboard an aircraft, efficiency must be improved for it to become a practical technology. Therefore, the jury is still out on whether hydrogen will succeed. I'll continue to track the Hype Cycle and keep you informed!

Thank you for getting all the way through the Hype Cycle and this issue of The Second Century of Flight!

I am interested to know whether you think the mentioned technologies are properly placed on the Hype Cycle. Or maybe you think there is a technology that must be added - or removed. Let me know, you can contact me via [email protected] or send me a message via LinkedIn.

For more about me, visit giel.io