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Should Planes Fly Like Geese?

Should Planes Fly Like Geese?
Jeff Edwards

Airbus has unveiled a novel concept for saving jet fuel. The European aerospace conglomerate says that birds flying in a close formation may hold the key to making air travel dramatically more fuel-efficient. In simulations in which aircraft mimicked techniques employed by migrating birds, cost savings of up to 10% were achieved.

Airbus says that taking a cue from our feathered friends in the sky may help planes to achieve fuel savings of between five and 10% without significantly re-engineering current aircraft. The secret, it seems, is in the remarkable way birds are able to share energy while flying in formation.

It turns out, according to simulator tests, when even two large planes fly close together on long haul journeys, the planes can recapture a great deal of wasted energy in much the same way geese flying in close formation are able to use the energy lost in creating wake to help other birds in the back of the formation to expend less energy. In order for the technique to be effective, however, the aircraft mimicking this behavior must fly extremely close together, raising a few obvious safety concerns.

“Airbus’ ‘fello’fly’ project aims to demonstrate the technical, operational and commercial viability of two aircraft flying together for long-haul flights,” Airbus said in a statement unveiling the findings. “Through fello’fly, a follower aircraft will retrieve the energy lost by the wake of a leader aircraft, by flying in the smooth updraft of air it creates. This provides lift to the follower aircraft allowing it to decrease engine thrust and therefore reduce fuel consumption in the range of 5-10% per trip.”

Airbus says it is experimenting with “pilot assistance functions” which will allow flight crews to maintain safe speed, altitude and following distance between the closely positioned planes while also allowing the “follow plane” to reap maximum fuel savings. The company plans to move from computer simulations to flight tests early next year. Officials say they will test the concept using two of its A350 planes. Airbus expects to have a viable entry into service model ready within the decade and expects approval to widely employ the technique for commercial passenger flights soon after.

[Feautured Image: Airbus]

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