Birds do it—Passenger planes will fly in formation too

Sep 06, 2012 by Nancy Owano report
Implementation of a steep "eco-climb" during aircraft takeoff – which is included in Airbus’ Smarter Skies campaign – will alleviate congestion through greater frequency, while also reducing noise and emissions. Credit: Airbus

(Phys.org)—Toulouse-based Airbus, a world-leading aircraft manufacturer, has issued its "vision" of what truly smart flying—smart, that is, as in sustainable rather than smart as in sensor-packed—will be like in 2050. The presentation is designed to address making passenger flying more comfortable, safer, more reliable, and, as key, to address the need to curb aviation emissions that pollute the environment. In all, Airbus has ideas for sustainable aviation in 2050 and beyond. If global air transport is to grow as projected, the company knows there is work ahead to cut emissions and institute ways that flying can be less burdensome to the environment. They are suggesting ways to minimize noise, reduce fuel emissions and potentially shorten flight times.

One such step foresees a new method for , with renewably powered propelled acceleration that allows aircraft to climb steeper and reach cruise altitude faster. They have suggested a propelled platform with its own set of wheels under the plane's that could boost acceleration before detaching just before takeoff.

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In approaching airports, Airbus also suggested the plans could glide towards the airports using a steeper approach than usual as an alternative to the use of engine thrust and air brakes.

Their presentation looks at slowing aircraft at earlier stages and making shorter landing distances possible. Using shorter runways would mean less land use, also in the name of going green, or in the words of an Airbus statement, "as space becomes a premium and mega-cities become a reality."

Formation flights along “express skyways” – the full benefits of which are highlighted by Airbus’ Smarter Skies campaign – could reduce drag and expend less energy by up to 15 per cent. Credit: Airbus

Airbus further suggests that flying in formation be used to cut air drag and boost . "High frequency routes would allow aircraft to benefit from flying in formation like birds during cruise bringing efficiency improvements due to drag reduction and lower ," according to the Vision statement.

Airbus executive vice president of engineering, Charles Champion, said "We know people want to fly more in the future and our forecasts support this. We also know that they don't want to fly at any cost."

A key feature of Airbus’ Smarter Skies campaign is the use of a continuous “eco-climb” during takeoff, which will help increase capacity at constrained megacities/airports. Credit: Airbus

Fuel is a key topic in the Airbus' proposal; Airbus says it is already working on development and use of alternative fuels. "The use of sustainable biofuels and other potential alternative energy sources (such as electricity, hydrogen, solar etc) will be necessary to secure supply and further reduce aviation's environmental footprint in the long term," said Airbus. This would allow an extensive introduction of regionally sourced renewable energy close to airports, the company added, feeding aircraft sustainably.

Zero emission ground operations – which is a component of Airbus’ Smarter Skies campaign – supports optimised terminal space and will help remove runway and gate limitations. Credit: Airbus

When you look at Airbus stats, it is easy to see that numbers in tons of excess fuel and avoidable CO2 emissions suggest that efforts to come up with smarter moves are needed. According to , if the Air Traffic Management system and technology on board the aircraft were optimized, then flights in Europe and the US could on average be around 13 minutes shorter, and flights in other parts of the world could be shorter too. Assuming around 30 million flights per year, this would save around 9 million tons of excess fuel annually, which equates to over 28 million tons of avoidable CO2 emissions and, for passengers, a saving of 5 million hours of excess flight time.

Explore further: Are electric cars greener? Depends on where you live

More information: www.airbus.com/no_cache/newsev… n-for-smarter-skies/

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CapitalismPrevails
1 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2012
Why would planes in formation reduce drag?
packrat
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 06, 2012
They would be flying in the slip streams from the planes in front of them and that would save fuel but I don't want to be in a plane that is flying that close to the one in front of it myself.
kochevnik
3 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2012
Birds don't fly in a V pattern. They fly in a nested Fibonacci pattern that fractally nests vortices in smaller scales. Yet another top-down engineering failure scheduled for 2050.
Shabs42
5 / 5 (2) Sep 06, 2012
I'm not an aerospace engineer, but I'm assuming they won't need to be nearly as close as planes in the military routinely fly to get most of the benefits.

If solar panel technology continues to improve, planes seem like an idea vehicle to cover; seeing as they're above the clouds much of the time they are in use. On sunny days they could be charging batteries while on the ground too. I can't imagine solar getting to the point where it would be able to provide anywhere near all of the power, but if it could knock another few percentage points off of the fuel costs, that would still be a win.
Shabs42
5 / 5 (1) Sep 06, 2012
Just for fun I did some quick research and found that a 747 can use anywhere from about $5,000 to $100,000 worth of fuel per flight depending on distance and a host of other factors. That same 747 has a life span of over 10,000 flights.

Saying 10,000 flights at $10,000 of fuel per flight equals $100,000,000 of total fuel over the life of a plane; meaning even a 1% increase in fuel efficiency saves $1,000,000 of fuel using my very conservative numbers.

Someone with more expertise care to correct me if I went wrong anywhere there?
ziphead
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 07, 2012
"Birds do it—Passenger planes will fly in formation too"

Birds also do some other stuff from up in the air; will passenger planes in the future do that too/poo?
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Sep 07, 2012
meaning even a 1% increase in fuel efficiency saves $1,000,000 of fuel using my very conservative numbers.

While I love solar I think covering a plane in solar cells that are good enough for flight (i.e. that don't have issues with extreme cold, extreme temperature changes due to de-icing systems coming online, etc. ) that could cost easily in excess of 1 million dollars.

The surface area of a Boing 747 is about 5000 square meters.
Covering all that in solar cells with 20% efficiency would render roughly 0.8MW of power at midday (calculated with solar constant of 800W per square meter. Much less during early/late hours and none at night. If you take an overall average you get 0.34MW).

The cruising power af a 747 is 45MW (double that for takeoffs). So we're already in the sub-1% range. Currently not worth it. Especially not when adding heavy batteries.
Shabs42
not rated yet Sep 08, 2012
Thanks, I thought of around a dozen problems after posting, but wasn't sure about the math for power from solar cells. I knew durability and manufacturing would be among the larger problems, but I somehow glossed over the whole temperature swing factor while thinking it over. Maybe in 20 years or so...
baudrunner
1 / 5 (1) Sep 09, 2012
If the planes in the videos are better than the ones we have now, why are they not flying them now?

I think that only highly trained combat pilots taking off from aircraft carriers can sustain those G forces they experience from using those catapults to shorten takeoff distance. I don't think your average overweight casual flyer would enjoy the experience.
Shootist
1 / 5 (2) Sep 09, 2012
Why would planes in formation reduce drag?


Better question. Why bother? There are not enough flights going the same direction to warrant multiple aircraft.
Shabs42
5 / 5 (1) Sep 09, 2012
If the planes in the videos are better than the ones we have now, why are they not flying them now?


Planes have quite the production cycle. You can't just draw a schematic and build the plane the next day.

I think that only highly trained combat pilots taking off from aircraft carriers can sustain those G forces they experience from using those catapults to shorten takeoff distance. I don't think your average overweight casual flyer would enjoy the experience.


I am positive that they have taken this into consideration when considering the future of public air travel.

Shabs42
not rated yet Sep 09, 2012
Better question. Why bother? There are not enough flights going the same direction to warrant multiple aircraft.


I think you are greatly underestimating the number of daily flights. About 30,000 domestic commercial flights in the United States every day according to the first two websites I checked, and nearly 100,000 counting private aircraft. They wouldn't have to take off and land at the exact same time either to fly in formation. And assuming different airlines could work together and the fact that they are forecasting for an increase in air traffic over the next 30-40 years, there will definitely be enough to justify this (assuming it really works.)

Ten years ago my father and I went to Las Vegas, took a bump to another flight on the same airline, and left only 15 minutes later than our original flight. This was from Kansas City, not exactly a huge airport. Flights between New York/LA/Chicago/Vegas would definitely be able to take advantage.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) Sep 10, 2012
Why bother? There are not enough flights going the same direction to warrant multiple aircraft.

If you go transatlantic there are roughly 1000 flights per day (and I'm guessing about as many transpacific ones). With good scheduling you could arrange it that that every hourly batch meets up over the continental coast and then heads on over.

If you look at a map of gloabl airplane rotes you will notice that many transcontinental flights take the same routes (because they utilize jet streams which lessen fuel costs)

The issue could be something very akin to 'passenger road trains' and could be solved by very much the same algorithmic approach.

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