Migrating geese do it. Why not commercial aircraft?
That’s the logic behind European aerospace giant Airbus’s research into how its airliners could save energy by flying behind other planes.
Known as wake-energy retrieval, or surfing on the airflow behind another flyer, is common in nature, according to a company press release. “The benefits are obvious: free lift means staying aloft for longer distances with a lot less energy expenditure,” the statement said.
Airbus engineers believe their so-called fello’fly project could save as much as 10 percent in fuel per trip. The project is part of UpNext, a subsidiary that aims to swiftly demonstrate the feasibility of new sustainable and other technologies.
The biggest problem, unsurprisingly, is safety. Airbus is trying to determine which air carriers have similar routes and, if they can fly together, how close, fast and for how long enormous passenger planes can fly behind another plane without an accident.
Over the ocean, for example, planes are supposed to fly around 70 kilometers apart under current regulations. Planes in fello’fly formation would be only 3 kilometers apart to gain the maximum benefit from the first plane’s draft.
Airbus recently signed agreements with French commercial carrier and SAS Scandinavian Airlines as well as three air regulators – France’s Direction des Services de la Navigation Aérienne, Britain’s NATS, formerly the National Air Traffic Services, and the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation – as part of the project.
As the Australian-based Centre for Aviation explained, the two airline companies will provide examples of what collaboration is necessary for fello’fly. The national and EU air controllers will test how to manage flights safey. Airbus, meanwhile, is improving technology to help pilots stay in the proper formation.
The program is expected to make test flights over the ocean next year.
Image credit: Nick Fewings via Unsplash