Big companies don’t often play the role of futurist. Sure, you have concept cars, but they’re sort of the exception that proves the rule; at auto shows, it’s pretty much a guarantee that those never-to-be-produced vehicles will make attendees coo with excitement, but part of that appeal is simply seeing a familiar brand put forward an unfamiliar vision. That’s why The Future by Airbus is so refreshing. The report, which envisions what a sustainable aviation industry might look in the year 2050, is full of the types of pie in the sky concepts we’re used to seeing from daring student projects, not multinational corporations. So just how strange a future does Airbus have in mind? Well, at least strange enough to include airplanes that fly in fuel-conserving formations, just like birds.
The aim is a noble one. After 40 years in the aviation industry, the company is actively prompting experts and engineers to think about what the next 40 might look like–what passengers will expect from air travel in the decades to come and how the industry can provide it sustainably. “Our engineers are continuously encouraged to think widely and come up with ‘disruptive’ ideas,” said Charles Champion, the company’s executive vice president of engineering. This latest installment in the on-going report outlines five central innovations for smarter skies.
One such idea, dubbed eco-climb, involves machine-assisted takeoff–essentially launching planes into the sky on a motorized track. Take-off, the site states, is the part of a flight that’s most demanding on the aircraft’s power reserves, and eco-climb could allow for smaller aircrafts that were quicker to reach their cruising altitude. “Acceptable acceleration and deceleration limits of passengers would need to be determined,” Airbus admits, “but the experience would be more akin to a comfortable children’s funfair ride rather than a high-octane white knuckle theme park.” Then yes, by all means, catapult me straight towards LAX.
Other ideas are based on better-optimized air traffic management, especially in flights’ landing stages. If incoming planes were better managed, the report says, aircrafts could pursue more gradual descents into their destinations, reducing the amount of thrust necessary and thus saving fuel. And after touching down, Airbus posits that a fleet of small, renewably powered taxi vehicles could pull the smaller planes to their gates, allowing the aircrafts to switch off their engines straight away. And Airbus acknowledges that alternative fuels for the aircraft themselves–be they biofuels, or other energy sources like hydrogen or solar–will be paramount to sustainability in the long run.
But the most fun proposal, without a doubt, is the one where planes flock together like a bunch of migrating birds.
In the future, highly intelligent aircraft would be able to “self-organise” and select the most efficient and environmentally friendly routes (“free flight”), making the optimum use of prevailing weather and atmospheric conditions.
High-frequency routes would also allow aircraft to benefit from flying in formation like birds during cruise bringing efficiency improvements due to drag reduction and lower energy use.
More efficient flight paths are kind of a no-brainer–Airbus says they were able to shave 20 minutes off a test flight from Brussels to Stockholm, saving 725 kilograms of fuel and reducing CO2 emissions by 2,283 kilograms–but the flight formations proposal is a bit farther out there. “Trailing planes can effectively ‘surf’ on the energy coming from the wing tip vortices of the preceding aircraft,” the report says, which would reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. But explaining the future of commercial air travel as “surfing” through the sky seems a little too lackadaisical for me to be comfortable with, and reminding me of the “vortices” involved scares me for precisely the opposite reason. Airbus says that these flight formations could be effective even with planes separated by about 20 wingspans, which at least seems like a distance where you could look out your window and not be totally terrified by the airplane flying right next to you, just vaguely unsettled.
Still, kudos to Airbus for not only considering the future and its challenges but for putting some potential solutions out there for us to see. The crazier ideas, like the flight formations, may never come to pass, but it certainly gets people thinking about the future of air travel. And hey, you never know. The Flying V worked for the Mighty Ducks.