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Learning from geese

The two Airbus A350 flying in formation so that the second can benefit from the updraft generated by the first aircraft, saving fuel and cutting CO2 emission. Image credit: Airbus

When it comes to optimise flying effort geese are smart. They fly in an arrow formation, the flock has a leading goose (it leads for a while and then another replaces it) and several others forming an arrow shaped flock (these front flying geese are also replaced at short time intervals). The ones flying in front use exactly the same energy (power) they would use if they were flying alone but those following are expending less power since they benefit from the updraft generated by the geese preceding them (in a platoon of cyclists or trucks the gain is due to the lower air drag, here it is different).

Airbus think they can learn from geese and have run the first experimental trans-Atlantic flight with two A350 in formation, following the same flight path with a separation of 3 miles (shorter than the ones used on ocean crossing).

The trial has shown a gain, for the tailing aircraft of 5% in fuel consumption and a 6 tons reduction in CO2 emission over the Toulouse to Montreal flight.

That would make quite a difference for the overall air traffic crossing the oceans.

The trial flight used the normal trans-Atlantic corridor and was closely monitore by ATC. The next step is to seek approval for procedure changes so that this can be applied to all flights across the ocean. Flights will not have to start/arrive at the same airports, they could meet on the way and fly in formation as long as the route is compatible.

This will require an update to flying procedure and to the algorithms assigning the routes to each plane.

The shorter separation among aircraft will need to rely even more on software and automatic assignment/monitoring of flights plus an increased reliance on satellite communications (a good portion of the ocean crossing is not monitored by ATC, it relies on pilots reporting their position).

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.