(CNN)Hypersonics, electric propulsion, triple deckers — think you’ve seen everything when it comes to new aircraft concepts?
Well just hold on a second, here comes the pod plane.
It’s yet another revolutionary aircraft design, this one created by Switzerland’s Federal Polytechnic Institute, that aims to transform the way people and cargo travel.
While the concept might be boundary-pushing, the inspiration is mundane.
The humble shipping container.
Futuristic and disruptive
Despite, or perhaps because of, its simple design, the shipping container is one of the most disruptive inventions of the past century.
It allows cargo to be moved cheaply from one mode of transport to another and has facilitated the development of the complex supply chains all modern economies rely on.
Transfer from truck to giant cargo ship to freight train is seamless and the container can be used again and again, drastically reducing the cost of long-distance shipping.
That’s the magic of inter-modal transport — and it’s something the futuristic and potentially game-changing Clip-Air concept hopes to emulate.
Clip-Air is composed of two elements.
There’s the flying component, including airframe, cockpit and engines.
Then there’s the capsules, a number of detachable pods that can act as cabin or cargo hold, depending on the chosen configuration.
The airframe is based on a flying-wing concept, reminiscent of a stealth bomber. Some may even find some similarities to the X-48, an experimental pilotless aircraft developed for NASA a decade ago.
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 didn’t leave their seat.
So what are the chances of this ever happening?
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 ahead and that years of further research and tests 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 biofuels 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.
In the meantime, Leonardi’s team 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.