Airbus is learning from geese to boost aircraft performance

Nov 18, 2019

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The travel world — and the world as a whole — would look entirely different if it weren’t for our feathered flying friend, the bird. Wilbur and Orville Wright drew inspiration from birds, and nature aided their understanding of essential concepts, like airflow and lift.

Even today, aircraft manufacturers continue to fall back on ornithology in an attempt to further improve efficiency, to reduce carbon emissions, increase aircraft range and — of course — curb fuel costs to save airlines money. At the Dubai Air Show on Monday, Airbus shared the news that it’s made notable progress in trimming fuel consumption by following the travel patterns of geese.

The manufacturer’s latest biomimetics venture, dubbed fello’fly, is said to reduce fuel usage by 5%-10% per trip. It entails multiple aircraft flying in a formation of sorts — not unlike the “V” shape observed in flocks of geese. Essentially, a “follower” aircraft will take advantage of the smooth rising air created by the wake of a “leader,” as visualized below.

Illustration courtesy of Airbus.
(Image courtesy of Airbus)

The concept is sound in theory, but successful execution faces many challenges. First, both aircraft need to be travelling in the same direction, maintaining distance and altitude. That may be achievable when travelling from the same city to Europe through the Organized Track System (OTS), for example, but even then, departures would need to be coordinated, and both aircraft would need to be similar — an Airbus A350 flies more efficiently at a higher altitude and speed than a Boeing 757, for example.

Airlines and manufacturers would need to get Air Traffic Control (ATC) to play ball, too, which could prove especially difficult. New York City-area airports often end up having aircraft circle for extended periods even on mild days, so it may be challenging to argue that reducing emissions is a top priority for the FAA.

Even so, Airbus is planning to test the concept with a pair of A350s next year, and the company is targeting a “controlled Entry-Into-Service (EIS)” by the middle of the next decade. If Airbus gets its way, we could see fello’fly passenger flights by 2025.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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