Aircraft

Airbus unveils its "Smarter Skies" vision for the future of sustainable aviation

Airbus unveils its "Smarter Sk...
Airbus envisages future passenger aircraft taking off with the assistance of a catapult-like device
Airbus envisages future passenger aircraft taking off with the assistance of a catapult-like device
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Airbus enthused the benefits of a free-glide approach to airports
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Airbus enthused the benefits of a free-glide approach to airports
Express skyways would bring passenger planes to within 20 wingspans of each other
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Express skyways would bring passenger planes to within 20 wingspans of each other
The eco-climb concept would enable passenger planes to reach fuel-efficient cruising altitudes more quickly
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The eco-climb concept would enable passenger planes to reach fuel-efficient cruising altitudes more quickly
The eco-climb concept appears to draw inspiration from the same catapult-assisted take-off utilized by aircraft carrier-based fighter pilots
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The eco-climb concept appears to draw inspiration from the same catapult-assisted take-off utilized by aircraft carrier-based fighter pilots
Part of the challenge of implementing eco-climb resides in keeping G-Force within acceptable boundaries for passengers
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Part of the challenge of implementing eco-climb resides in keeping G-Force within acceptable boundaries for passengers
Airbus calculated that flights in Europe and the U.S. could be around 13 minutes shorter on average with ATM optimization
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Airbus calculated that flights in Europe and the U.S. could be around 13 minutes shorter on average with ATM optimization
Airbus envisages future passenger aircraft taking off with the assistance of a catapult-like device
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Airbus envisages future passenger aircraft taking off with the assistance of a catapult-like device
Express skyways would bring passenger planes to within 20 wingspans of each other
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Express skyways would bring passenger planes to within 20 wingspans of each other
View gallery - 8 images

A new report drafted by Airbus as part of its “Smarter Skies” initiative sees the aircraft manufacturing company looking toward 2050 and beyond, in order to consider what can be done to meet the expected growth in future air travel sustainably. The ambitious plans put forward include assisted take-off, free-glide landings, and aircraft flying in formation.

In the report, Airbus explains that the initial power required for a passenger plane to take-off is only needed for a brief part of the total flight. This therefore poses an opportunity for a ground-based device to provide the propulsion needed and free the plane of its additional burden. With this in mind, the engineers at Airbus came up with an idea dubbed "eco-climb" which appears to draw inspiration from the catapult-assisted take-off system utilized on aircraft carriers.

Airbus envisages the eco-climb system moving into position automatically and assisting passenger planes to take-off on shorter runways, with the benefit of a more rapid climb enabling aircraft to reach efficient cruising altitude quicker than before. A key concern in implementing such a design rests in keeping g-force within acceptable levels, and one can imagine such a system requiring ample stores of on-board sick bags.

The eco-climb concept would enable passenger planes to reach fuel-efficient cruising altitudes more quickly
The eco-climb concept would enable passenger planes to reach fuel-efficient cruising altitudes more quickly

Perhaps more practical for the somewhat near future, are the company's thoughts on landing more economically. Airbus promoted the benefits of a free-glide approach to airports, which could reduce emissions during the overall descent and limit noise too, as there would be no need for engine thrust or air breaking. However, even this idea would face a challenge to surmount current safety regulations.

Another possibility put forward concerns flying multiple aircraft in "express skyways," with the use of highly sophisticated and automated aircraft navigation systems to bring passenger planes to within 20 wingspans of each other – much less than the four nautical miles which separates civil aircraft today, but still technically feasible. Just like migratory birds and military aircraft, commercial aircraft flying in a V formation would benefit from reduced drag due to the upwash from the wingtip vortices of the preceding aircraft, resulting in greater fuel efficiency.

Airbus also states that by further optimizing Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems and making better use of existing aircraft capabilities, changes in infrastructure and organization, could help reduce traffic congestion and delays, while more direct routes could cut travel times.

The company claims that flights in Europe and the U.S. could be around 13 minutes shorter on average, and flights in other parts of the world could be shorter too. Working on the assumption of approximately 30 million flights per year, the Airbus engineers worked out that such optimization could save around nine million tons of excess fuel annually, equating to over 28 million tons of avoidable CO2 emissions and a saving of five million hours of excess flight time.

While some of the plans cited in the Smarter Skies report will not be attainable for some time, if ever, optimization of existing technologies is something that could provide benefits to airlines and passengers in the near future.

Source: Airbus via The Register

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21 comments
K5ING
I've always wondered why passenger aircraft don't use four smaller engines for take-offs only, then cut two of them for cruising and landing. Maybe even use retractable covers over the intakes of the two take-off engines to improve aerodynamics in flight. This would use less fuel and while it wouldn't improve the emissions during take off, it may be offset by fewer emissions during the flight itself.
AngryPenguin
@K5ING
I've heard of cargo planes (particularly C-130) being fitted with a system like that, except with rockets - and in one case, used to land and take off in the space of a football field. The drawback is that the rockets need to be replaced after each use. With what you're talking about, the plane would only need more of the same fuel it uses anyway.
flame_can
@K5ING the reason is that engine not working in cruise is dead weight. Dead weight means less cargo and less money. So far the runways are sufficiently long. Also, as Angry Penguin pointed out military transports used RATO - rocket assisted take-off. It works well, because the RATO engines are discarded after the take off, so they aren't a dead weight in cruise. On the other hand, I don't think that people living in the neighborhoods of airfield would like empty rockets with some fuel still remaining to fall on their houses.
Robt
@K5ING not only would two extra engines add weight (as per flame_can), they also add drag, and between the two, you'd have one totally uneconomical aircraft. That's before you factor in the cost of buying and maintaining two additional engines.
Luke Beauchamp
Why not make it a flying wing? You could carry more passengers that way. Why not put the engines above the wings? That way the noise would be reflected upwards instead of downwards towards peoples houses.
Passive Lead
Good idea to reduce fuel consumption. How about using a Maglev bogie with 2 arms above which push behind both wings near the fuselage. The Maglev track bed would be invisible beneath the runway. Not sure if they could be used for landing..
Tony Reynolds
Even though the miltary planes used to use rockets, the system is known as JATO, not RATO, for Fet Assisted Take-Off.
This plane looks suspiciously like the Sonic Cruiser Boeing unveiled in 2000.
As for a flying wing, that has been studied, but flying wings aren't currently able to use existinfg airport gates, jetways and other infrastructure, which would need to be heavily modified to accomodate them.
Julien Fournier
Why not try to use laser propulsion from the ground to the plane rather than a buggy?
eskenig
@ Luke Beauchamp The flying wing is a decent idea the issue with it is airports don't have a good way of boarding them as they don't exactly work well with existing jet ways. Gizmag had an article on a sort of drive through airport not too long ago that might make something like that more feasible but not without issues. Other issues presented is a lack of window seats. Carbon fiber brings the possibility of windows on the roof, but that probably still isn't going to cut it for most people as the view is substantially less, unless flying at night. I think a more practical solution to that is to have LCD screens that let people use them as windows or whatever. These would naturally be more geared towards long haul flights so you could create a different class structure where you have the sleeper seats in the middle along with other amenities and try and keep the passengers to the outsides as best as possible.
Something else that I think would be interesting is the treadmill "myth" I still have some trouble wrapping my mind around it but they tested it on a prop plane for mythbusters, I'd be interested in seeing if i works for jets as well.
In regards to things brought up in the article, computer automated ATC's have been demoed to be far more efficient than humans with less errors. Big surprise. I think in the next 10-15 years we'll start seeing them be implemented. Not that there aren't obvious security concerns. V formation flying, it's about time. I guess they decided it was too much work for pilots to do this on commercial flights so they waited for computer control. The distances cited seems a little large to me but still cool. I know another thing that's being looked at is ground effect flying over the ocean. Again, not without safety concerns but has the potential for more fuel efficient flight. The eco climb idea is a great idea however I don't think it'll get them out of the expense/weight of having more powerful engines as you'd still need them for aborted landings where you suddenly need massive amounts of power to pull away. I'm a pilot myself and I've had to do this more times than I'd like (deer, another plane, ducks) This of course being the safety issue with glide in landings. If they can figure out a way to start the engines instantly while gliding in, then you may be in business. Or just carry on RATO for aborted landings. I don't know if the fuel savings would = the cost of of fuel used to carry the RATO. But assuming RATO works, you could save more money in fewer, lighter, smaller, more efficient, etc engines
Siddharth Mehta
@K5ING
Despite some "smart" comments your suggestion makes sense. In some 10 or 12 cylinder cars fuel is not injected in some of the cylinders unless you really need the power and this has reduced fuel use and emissions.
However, you want to have all four on when landing -- if you need to abort the landing you'll really need all the power you can get.