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Boeing and NASA have found an inexpensive way to cut airline fuel bills by borrowing a trick from the world's greatest long-distance aviators: migratory birds.
By lining up cruising aircraft in a V-shaped formation favored by Canada geese, carriers would be able to produce a leap in efficiency without investing in structural makeovers or futuristic technology. The idea is to link the flying convoys safely using navigation and collision-avoidance tools that already are widely installed in cockpits.
"Think of a car drafting a truck, or one bike rider drafting another," said Mike Sinnett, vice president for product development at Chicago-based Boeing. "It essentially allows you, if you are flying in the right spot, to reduce your fuel burn. But you've got to be there for a long time."
Wake surfing, as the avian technique is known, involves harvesting energy from a lead plane - a potential way to cut fuel bills, which typically rank as the biggest or second-biggest expense for airlines. A NASA researcher points to studies showing fuel savings of 10 percent to 15 percent, on a par with pricier options such as upgrading engines or installing winglets.
The concept is one of dozens under study at Boeing. The company is also looking at long, glider-like wings beneath a plane to save fuel, as well as how to manage the boom from supersonic flights. The Chicago-based planemaker is also studying artificial intelligence that would allow a single pilot to be at the controls during a long cruise, a potential step toward fully autonomous flights.
There's a catch, though. Before jets can glide on vortices at 30,000 feet, carriers would need to determine how to schedule planes onto the same route with extreme precision. That's a big ask for an industry already flummoxed by weather, employee hours, maintenance requirements and air-traffic congestion.
"Airlines can barely keep a schedule, anyway," said aviation consultant Robert Mann, an aerospace engineer and former airline executive. "I would argue that they can't."
Flying in formation holds greater promise for services with fewer scheduling variables, like manned and unmanned military aircraft, or, eventually, flocks of Amazon drones dropping off packages, he said.
Cargo operators might be able to change scheduling or routing to get multiple airplanes to the same place at the same time, said Curt Hanson, a NASA senior flight-controls researcher.
A study that wrapped up this year may help debunk the view that airlines would need extensive cockpit upgrades to fly in tight formation. Hanson looked at linking wake-surfing Gulfstream business jets using equipment that has to be installed in U.S. aircraft by 2020. The tool - automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast, or ADS-B - transmits a plane's position and velocity twice a second, providing more accurate readings than radar.
NASA measured considerable fuel savings that could be gained without making passengers or air crews uncomfortable, said Hanson, who is based at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.
Since the study isn't final, Hanson wouldn't discuss the magnitude of fuel savings. But he pointed to a wake-surfing demonstration of Boeing C-17 military transport planes earlier this decade that lowered fuel use about 10 percent. And a study pairing F-18 fighters around the turn of the millennium showed that formation flying reduced drag as much as 15 percent.
originally posted by: F4guy
a reply to: Zaphod58
If you really. really want to save fuel, fly at an altitude that is less than or equal to one-half the wingspan of the aircraft. That puts you in drag reducing ground effect and seriously raises efficiency. Of course some of your fuel savings will be eaten up by the rise in needed barf bag purchases. Of course, Spirit, Allegiant and the other "nickel-dime -you-to-death" airlines will start charging for the bags. And more of the savings would be eaten up by the cost of installing terrain following radar and TFM mode autopilots in the aircraft. But think of the E Ticket ride over Colorado at 100 feet above ground level.