Airbus Envisions 2050: “Smarter Skies” with Formation Flying, Reduced Emissions and Travel Time

Airbus vision sees concept planes flocking along ‘express skyways’ to cut time and emissions.

Intelligent planes that are propelled into the air, flock in formation and fly ‘express skyways’ could cut time, delays, stress and emissions, according to Airbus experts.

Those behind the wheel during rush hour aren’t the only ones stuck in traffic. Airbus says air passengers already spend more than 500 million hours in the air unnecessarily every year. Reasons include inefficient aircraft operations and routes that are anything but ‘direct’. That equates to nine million tonnes of avoidable excess fuel and more than 28 million tonnes of CO2. The numbers are set to rise with passenger growth expected to grow.

Airbus, which says the technology already exists to fly shorter and more precise routes, today unveils five revolutionary concepts to get passengers from A to B quicker, whilst helping the industry meet its target to halve CO2 emissions by 2050. It’s the latest installment in the Future by Airbus — a vision of sustainable aviation in 2050 already responsible for the radical Concept Plane and Cabin. Now Airbus is looking beyond aircraft design to how the aircraft is operated both on the ground and in the air. Its ‘Smarter Skies’ concepts are:

1. Aircraft launched into continuous ‘eco-climb’ — Assisted take-off using renewably powered, propelled acceleration, would see aircraft climb rapidly to their most efficient cruising altitude, reducing emissions and noise. As mega-cities become a reality and space becomes a premium, runways could be shortened to minimise land use.

2. Aircraft in ‘free flight’ and formation along ‘express skyways’ — Intelligent aircraft would be able to self-organise and select the most efficient routes (‘free flight’), making the optimum use of prevailing weather and atmospheric conditions. Planes could rendezvous in mid-air and flock like birds in formation to reduce drag and thus fuel consumption and emissions

3. ‘Low-noise’ glided approaches and landings — In descent, aircraft could glide smoothly into airports with engines running in idle, significantly reducing emissions and noise. Slower landing speeds would make shorter runways a viable possibility at both ends of the journey

4. Low emission ground operations — Landing positions could be optimised with enough accuracy for autonomous, renewably powered taxiing carriages to be ready, clearing runways quicker and optimising terminal space to remove runway and gate limitations. Engines could be switched off sooner, further reducing on-the-ground handling emissions

5. Powering future aircraft and infrastructure — The use of sustainable biofuels and other potential alternative energy sources such as electricity, hydrogen and solar, will secure supply and further reduce aviation’s environmental footprint. This will allow the extensive introduction of regionally sourced renewable energy close to airports, feeding both aircraft and infrastructure requirements.

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Airbus has engaged with more than 1.75 million people worldwide in a two-year consultation that is already shaping what — and how — we will fly in the future.

Airbus is using the feedback to develop its vision of sustainable aviation in 2050 and today unveils new footage of that vision. It is the latest step in the ‘Future by Airbus’ program which has already given rise to the revolutionary Airbus Concept Plane and radical 100% recyclable Airbus Concept Cabin.

Both gave a glimpse into innovations to meet evolving passenger trends and environmental demands. They include technologies to reduce fuel burn, emissions and noise, with a light-weight ‘intelligent’ body, transparent wall membranes and morphing seats that harvest body heat for power.

But as more people fly more often, the greater their expectations for the ‘end-to-end passenger experience’ will be. The Airbus consultation highlights a somewhat predictable list of gripes: queues at passport control; slow check-in and baggage collection; sitting on the tarmac; and circling overhead.

Such issues have come to the fore in London this summer and, with aviation set to double in the next 15 years, could become more common unless the industry can work together to cut delays.

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Environmentalists in sync with Airbus on formation flying

Environmental groups say they are encouraged by ambitious plans recently announced by Airbus to fly aircraft in flock formation by the middle of this century. The company’s Smarter Skies concepts also include steeper take-offs to reduce journey times and gentler, glide-in landings.

Original story by Jim Drury for Reuters:

Transcript: This isn’t birds flying in formation, but Airbus’s futuristic vision of air travel.

The aviation giant says by 2050 groups of planes could fly side by side, making air travel more efficient and reducing carbon emissions at the same time. It may seem like a radical idea but Airbus engineering executive vice president Charles Champion says it makes perfect sense for the most in-demand destinations .

Soundbite (English) Charles Champion, Executive Vice President Engineering, Airbus, saying:

“Formation flying, actually we’re not talking about the Red Arrows, so you’re not wing-to-wing flying together but it’s more like birds, talking about maybe one nautical mile separation, so you actually use the wake of the aircraft in front of you to burn less fuel. Actually we did that with the A400M, our military aircraft, and the pilot told me that when you’re behind the aircraft actually you save maybe ten to fifteen percent more fuel.”

The airline’s Smarter Skies concepts also include Assisted Eco Climb take-off where planes without undercarriages are propelled skywards by mechanical trolleys. Aircraft could ‘self-organize’ in so-called Express Skyways, selecting the most efficient and environmentally-friendly routes. And, when back on the ground, planes could be manoeuvred onto a track system at the airport using electro-magnetic motors built into the track. Aviation analyst Howard Wheeldon insists improvements don’t all have to be cutting edge.

Soundbite (English) Howard Wheeldon, Aviation Analyst, saying:

“Airports themselves are very very inefficient structures and of course the amount of taxiing on the airport and indeed the delays caused in getting into the airport, aircraft having to fly around for 15, 20 minutes, often over half an hour before they can actually land. There’s lots of ways you can actually save fuel and that’s before you start bringing in even better technology.”

Airbus says its plans could cut average flights by 13 minutes and save almost 30 million tonnes of avoidable C02 emissions a year. Environmental lawyer Alan Andrews calls the plans exciting, and evidence that tough EU emissions targets are affecting airlines’ thinking. But he offers a word of caution.

Soundbite (English) Alan Andrews, Environmental Lawyer for ClientEarth, saying:

“What we’ve got to bear in mind here is the overall aim of these ideas is to meet an insatiable demand for air travel. That’s clearly stated in the plans. That’s not going to achieve the overall reductions in carbon dioxide and other pollutants like oxides of nitrogen, which are harmful to human health and the environment. So while we might see a reduction in the emissions from each plane that’s taking off, the overall impact of the industry is going to continue to grow in terms of emissions of carbon.”

Airbus insists it’s serious about cutting emissions and has pledged to use sustainable biofuels and other alternative energy sources. None of the proposed technologies are close to fruition, but Airbus says that in a world of diminishing resources it’s committed to blue-sky thinking.