Migratory birds—Canada geese, more exactly—are inspiring a rethink at Boeing on the way planes fly, to eventually cut fuel expenses. Aircraft can get added buoyancy by lining up in a precise V-shaped formation, typical of migrating geese, behind a lead aircraft. By syncing their flight path with the upward spiral of the conical vortices of air that swirl behind a plane in flight after its wing-tips cut through the air, trailing-planes will burn less fuel. As per Bloomberg, Nasa studies show that this will result in 10-15% fuel savings.
The catch is scheduling flights on a particular route for this formation with a lag during which any of the variables that determine the flight path could change, from weather to congestion, etc. And, of course, the flight duration has to be long enough for the vortices to lower the drag for follower planes meaningfully. A Nasa official quoted in the Bloomberg report says scheduling planes for such a formation could get much easier in the near future with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B becoming mandatory by 2020. ADS-B transmits a plane’s position and speed details twice in one second, and thereby provides more accurate information than a conventional radar.
Aircraft makers are now experimenting with aircraft design to see what boundaries for speed, fuel-efficiency, etc, can be pushed. From fuselage to wings to tails, everything is being redrawn, and planes are being manufactured at a concept level for testing. All this experimentation is a paradigm-shift in the making, given how conventional aircraft design has remained almost the same for over five decades now. Changes in design would also mean a upheaval for airport/hangar infrastructure. Fors instance, if Boeing’s work on long, thin, high efficiency glider-like wings for goes beyond just its truss-braced wing concept, hangar gates have to become wider or the tips have to be made foldable. Both scenarios come with a baggage of complexity.
As per a NBC report, concept work at four top aircraft-makers—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Aurora Flight Sciences and Dzyne Technologies—is focussed on planes that burn half the fuel being used currently and generate 75% less pollution. While Boeing and Lockheed Martin are developing hybrid wing body crafts, Dzyne’s working on a blended wing body. Aurora’s double-wide fuselage (the D8 Double Bubble) looks like a pair of plane-body Siamese twins—it works around a fuel-saving propulsion concept monikered Boundary Layer Ingestion or BLI by Nasa scientists. The engines have been shifted from the wings to the top of the rear fuselage.
Aircraft design is seeing dynamism like never before, and it may not be too far in the future when we have greener, faster and less noise producing aircraft that look nothing like the ones that dot the skies today.