Aero 2075: An Engineer’s Crystal Ball

By Scott Spangler on October 30th, 2011
A fuel-efficient idea by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Now that I have your attention, the concept of fuel efficient formation flight for airliners is one of four areas covered in the United Kingdom’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently released report on aviation that asks an interesting question—Aero 2075: Flying Into a Bright Future?

Focusing on its aerospace industry, the report leads with a warning that applies to us as well: “Research and development investment is at an historic low, and core capabilities, key facilities, and infrastructure are slowly eroding.”

During the next two decades, the report continues, the global airline industry is predicted to order more than 25,000 new aircraft “with a market value in excess of $3 trillion.” Who made this prediction is unknown, and orders and deliveries are two different things. Still, “with limited grown in Europe and North America predicted, it will be the rapid expansion of domestic routes in Asia and south America which will drive demand.”

Given the state of the global economy and human nature, I’m not so sanguine. Given the colliding realities of a population passing the 7 billion mark, the ever increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots, and their rates at which they are consuming natural and manmade resources, some will certainly be living in interesting times, others will be surviving.

But that’s not the really cool part of the report. For commercial aviation to survive and prosper through 2075, “Aerospace engineers must navigate a turbulent zone where technology and economics combine to compete with physics…[and ] produce ever more ingenious ideas for aircraft design and technology.”

In its crystal ball the institution looks at four areas: subsonic, supersonic, hypersonic, and the aforementioned formation flying.

In subsonic flight, the report focuses on blended-wing body designs, now being explored by Boeing’s X-48B, an unmanned aerial vehicle. Their greatest benefit seems to be improved aerodynamic efficiency, which means greater fuel efficiency.

In the supersonic section the report looks at speedy airliners and business jets, including Lockheed Martin’s Supersonic Green Machine that, somehow, hold the possibility of overland flight by “dramatically lowering the level of sonic booms through the use of ‘inverted-V’ engine under-wing configuration.”

“Dramatically lowering” is not the same thing as eliminating sonic booms. With the population not stopping at 7 billion, we’re all gonna be living a lot closer together, which tends to make most people cranky. Being regularly head-butted by a muted sonic boom will surely trigger angry complaints. And I wonder who among the 7 billion will be able to afford a ticket and whatever extra fees the airlines connect to supersonic flight. The same realities apply to hypersonic scramjets, the report’s next chapter.

Formation flying with airliners is a cool idea. Like the geese honking overhead on their way south right now, the airliners would form a V. Aviation researchers have already proven the aerodynamic benefits of this formation, and the engineers say it could yield a fuel savings up to 12 percent.

It’s hard to conceive of an airline that would have three or more airliners going to the same place or part of the world at the same time. It’s even harder to believe that competing airlines would voluntarily join this fuel saving formation. So making it the new ATC separation requirements seems to be the only solution.

Still, it’s nice to dream of what could be, an emotional feast of comfort food in times of increasing disharmony and want. And there is a chance it could come to pass, if we realize the detrimental waste of our current way of life and find ways to work for the common good. – Scott Spangler

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4 Responses to “Aero 2075: An Engineer’s Crystal Ball”

  1. David Says:

    Do the blue angels, t-birds, red arrows, etc. get fuel savings over solo performers?

  2. Richard Says:

    if you talking about formation flying at less then a wing span apart, your carzy. in our community we have the Hero Pilots flying expermintal and old chinese Yaks at less than a wing sapn apart anf the FAA Suports this. were in a residental are and the planes are less than 300 ft above ground and on approach tp El Monte Airport they are less than 400 ft from the sams club fuel depot We Don’t See Much Safety in that Maybe when we get this in Nes papaers they will Support the People who live in the area and Let the Heros Play in the Practice areas and Keep away from residental Housing Look up 91.13

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    First, I’m not proposing the formation flight of airliners, I’m just sharing the an idea promulgated by engineers that has theoritical merit.

    As for the fuel saving benefits of formation flight as it related to military demonstration teams, logic suggest against it because they seem to cycle in and out of after burner to deliver the thrust needed to safely complete many of their maneuvers.

    As I understand the engieers’ report, and goodness knows I’m no engineer, the benefits derived come in cruise, like geese winging their way south with steady wing-beats that put snow and ice on their six.

  4. Curt Clark Says:

    Here’s how, except for the lead-goose, the drag of the “geese wingmen” are reduced, resulting in
    “fuel savings”: The geese are oriented such that
    their wingtip vortices cancel; for example, the vortice from the left wing of “goose-lead” will meet the vortice from the right wing of “goose-wingman #1” (flying on the left side of lead). They are rotating in opposite directions, so when they meet, they cancel out, resulting in a drag reduction for “goose-wingman”. This effect continues down the line of geese. Everyone honks to encourage the “lead” to keep up the good work!

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