X-51AI’m putting together a list of what I think are shaping up to be the big, current innovations in aviation. Here’s some of what I have so far….

Carbon Fiber Airframes
What do the Airbus A280, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the new Airbus A350, and the Stratolaunch Roc have in common? They are all constructed with a significant percentage of carbon fiber composites in place of the conventional aluminum. With the 787 and the A350, it’s 50%, with the Roc, near 100%. This seems like the future for big airplanes from here out. Carbon fiber is not only stronger than aluminum, but also lighter, making airplanes more fuel efficient. As a bonus, passengers are more comfortable because cabins can be pressurized to closer to sea level.

Autonomous Flight
Drones, drones, drones. But manned aircraft are also acquiring more intelligent autopilots. The University of North Dakota, working with NASA and MITRE  Corp., has developed sensing and autonomous collision avoidance algorithms that perform well in real-world flight test. The FAA is looking ahead to a mix of autonomous and piloted traffic in the national airspace by 2015, and this is just one of the many innovations that will make it possible.

Helicopters as Fast as Airplanes
The Sikorsky X2 has a prop in the back to push it up to high speed. DARPA and Chinese projects are also working in this vein, and the V-22 tilt rotor is already in service. Agility and speed in one package. The future of helicopters?

Hypersonic Flight
This might be the year that air breathing engines achieve sustained combustion. The X-51A from DARPA and the Air Force came close to that goal in a 2010 test flight, then failed to light at all in tests in 2010 and 2011. One final test flight is planned for this year. Hypersonics have the potential to cut round-the-world flight times down to four hours. Is this the year they get off the ground?

What else should be on the list?