One of the more interesting things to roll across my desk recently is the announcement of roll-out of the XB-1, the supersonic demonstrator aircraft created by Boom Aero — a startup dedicated to creating the first supersonic transport after the Concorde — literally 60 years later. This is their promotional video around this event.
And it is interesting indeed.
OK — some ground rules here, folks. It is very annoying to me to immediately engage in “gotcha” type thinking. I know it is a promotional video. No, I don’t believe all their claims. Yes, I know that supersonic flight is fraught with many perils, not the least of what it does environmentally to the high stratosphere 60k feet off the ground. Yes, I am deeply familiar with the noise problems of the Concorde. If I had a nickel for every time I had to explain wavefront shock propagation to people that believed planes just went up, “broke” the sound barrier, and that was the end of it, I could have a very nice meal indeed.
But the video is worth the watch. Not because they talk about sustainability, or all sorts of the other selling points they consolidate. For example, they talk about recycling the airplane. Trust me, the problem with supersonic flight is not in the recycling. It’s the lifecycle impacts during the use phase that are the real problems. And those are sticky and harder to address. The engines are designed to optimize performance for biofuels, but those very biofuels require petroleum at this point to grow.
What is more interesting is their discussion of their work practice, and how they apparently structured their high-performance teams. In order to get off the ground (pun intended) with supersonic flight, they required far more synergistic blending of the physics, as well as manufacturing and customer participation. And that requires far more empathetic development of technical teams than in the past.
Additionally, the XB-1 is their prototype aircraft, and there is tons of empathy built into the cockpit design, with massive amounts of feedback from their test pilots. The final plane, named the Overture, and scheduled to fly in 2030, will use the data from the testbed to deal with all the deal-killers associated with Concorde. It is unclear if they might cut the sonic boom problems enough to fly overland — but it is clear that they are taking aim at an economical solution to business travel.
Boom may succeed, or they may fail. I don’t know at this point, and I suspect that there will be many unknowns that emerge that dictate success, not the least competitive meeting technologies, such as holographic projection. But one thing for sure, is that when travel times are literally slashed in half, and jet lag is eliminated, it is going to create a certain sophistication in people who normally jet around, as well as the incumbent negative “bubble” effects. While creating a new, super-empowered global elite (I’m sure Jeff Bezos will have his own aircraft) who CAN know how tightly interconnected the world is, it also has the potential to create even more walls between the rich and the poor.
And more interestingly, the social tech. at Boom needed to develop such an aircraft has the potential to dramatically influence the work practice of super-high, or perhaps hyper-high tech around the world. Promising — but scary. Because that means if we can’t figure out what they’re really doing at Boom memetically, there is huge potential for whole professional work classes to be left behind.
Should we support the focus on a plane primarily aimed at the rich? I’ll tell you this. Projects like this create new groups of people, and sustained supersonic flight, because it is so charismatic, is a complexity magnet. The lessons learned may (and I emphasize ‘may’) bubble over to other problems that will require technical complexity to solve, like fusion research, or AGW. That means the memetic gap between the complexity “haves” and “have-nots” is going to have to be understood. Here’s to reframing our mental models so we really understand how tech. development will really change our brains.