Little Miss Drama

The plane of the future

on February 24, 2013

Source: Arabian Business

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Air travel is only going to increase in coming years and the world’s skies are only going to become more crowded. To help airlines deal with the challenges of the future, Boeing has developed an idea called the ‘Concept Plane’. The Concept Plane incorporates six innovations that would help to improve the passenger experience, reduce congestion and cut fuel consumption. Click on to find out how planes might look and operate in the future.

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An aircraft draws on its power reserves more during takeoff than at any other time. However, this takeoff power only is required for a very brief portion of the total flight. Once cruising in the sky overhead, an aircraft doesn’t need as much to maintain altitude. Today, planes climb to their required height in incremental stages that requires a lot of fuel. An assisted takeoff – using some form of propelled acceleration – would help them to get these heights without using as much fuel. This, in turn, would mean aircraft could be lighter, with smaller engines consuming less fuel. A continuous “eco-climb” would further cut noise and CO2 emissions, especially if renewable fuels were used, making the process even more eco-efficient. With less time and distance required for takeoff, the runways could be shortened by up to 1/3rd, minimizing land use, and enabling airport capacity to increase or new micro-airports to emerge. To assist takeoff, the plane could be maneuvered onto a track system and accelerated using either electromagnetic motors built into the track or an inductive circuit within the aircraft itself, much like a child’s ride at an amusement park.

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Due to international space regulations, planes do not fly in a “direct” path from one point to another, like the birds do. This results in circuitous flight patterns, which of course increase flight time and fuel consumption. In the future, manufacturers envision a free space allowing for changes in the way planes fly. Taking from nature, planes could fly in a V formation the way birds do reduce air drag and increase speeds. In a V formation of 25 birds, each can achieve a reduction of induced drag by up to 65% and increase their range by 7%. Further, a two-aircraft formation, three-aircraft “skein” (the symmetric V-shaped formation associated with geese and ducks), an inverted-V and echelon formation are also options for flying. The results suggest fuel burn savings of 10-12% are possible, with emissions cut by up to 25%. Airbus already is looking into cooperative flight scheduling and conducting research into aircraft stability and control. In parallel, a new breed of sensors able to detect the wake of the previous aircraft and rapid state changes must be developed. In principle, lightweight remote sensing equipment such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and Infrared cameras allow aircraft to detect the wake vortex of those ahead.

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Aircraft cabins of the future will be customised to the needs of individual passengers. The Concept Cabin doesn’t conform to the traditional cabin classes found in today’s commercial aircraft. First, Business and Economy class are replaced by zones that target more individual needs like relaxing, playing games, interacting with other passengers or holding business meetings with people on the ground. The cabin’s bionic structure and responsive membrane combine panoramic views with an integrated neural network, which can identify and respond to the specific needs of each passenger. And the fittings and furnishings will take care of their own cleaning and repairs thanks to innovations inspired by nature, like dirt repellent coatings and self healing covers. Seats will adapt to suit passengers’ budgets as well as their body, offering different levels of comfort and space for everybody. Further, hand luggage will be swallowed at the entrance, before reappearing beside you for easy access. Further, the seats will use energy from a passenger’s bodies to perform certain functions. The most futuristic feature could be the see-through walls of the plane that allow passengers stunning views, while offering information about the sights on the ground.

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Today aircraft descend in stages and often are forced to wait in the air, circling in holding patterns to avoid congested airspace or while awaiting a landing slot. However, leveling off during descent requires an increase in thrust. That means extra fuel burn and emissions – as well as unnecessary delays for passengers. With better air traffic management, aircraft could enter a fuel-efficient descent based on when best to leave cruise level – with no risk of getting stuck in traffic. Aircraft featuring technology to optimize landing positions with pinpoint accuracy could glide smoothly into airports with their engines running in idle, for significantly reduced fuel burn, emissions and noise. Slower landing speeds would also help in building shorter runways. The ultimate idea, likely beyond 2050, would be to use the same renewably-powered system on landing as at takeoff, receiving aircraft and removing the need for landing gear. This would require all alternate/diversion airports to have the same system. Either way, as the aircraft touches down, kinetic energy can be captured for future use. The ultimate vision would be to have landing gear that could catch the aircraft much like the assisted takeoff. This would require all airports to have the same system, to accommodate all routes along with alternative/diversion airports, and most likely is beyond 2050.

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The stored energy after switching off the engines prior to landing could also power autonomous receiving vehicles. These would be ready and waiting to taxi aircraft to the terminal using the fastest route, clearing runways and making it a quicker process for passengers to disembark. It also would mean a faster turnaround of the aircraft. Delays at gates would also be avoided, so the next aircraft – and its passengers – could enjoy the same benefits. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), up to six million tonnes of CO2 could be saved each year by reduced engine taxiing. Ground vehicles that can operate without human intervention, sensing and navigating around the dynamic airport environment are possible today. They could use electromagnetic currents flowing through runway-installed tracks or even wireless high power, with the aircraft perhaps acting as a conduit. Energy storage devices will be capable of storing high amounts of energy received in a very short period of time to assist these devices. These could be discharged, either slowly or rapidly, while remaining reasonably compact, lightweight and suitable for ground use. Excess energy also could be collected during flight to power on-board systems and/or stored for use on the ground.

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The use of biofuels and alternative sources of energy will be a requirement in the future for airplanes as fossil fuels become scarcer. Aviation currently represents 2% of total manmade CO2 emissions, 80% of which is from flights over 1,500 km for which there is no practical alternative. Along with developments in aircraft design and technology and improvements in air traffic management, sustainable alternative fuels are a promising solution to minimising CO2 emissions. Biofuels are produced from renewable resources such as biomass. When burnt, their emissions are the same as fossil fuels, but they emit 50-80% less CO2 over their entire lifecycle. Over 1,500 commercial flights worldwide have been flown on biofuels to date. As challenges remain in scaling up production and providing competitive pricing, governments and industry stakeholders will need to develop and implement policy frameworks and necessary investments to facilitate this. Sustainability standards have to be implemented as well. The increased reliance of the aviation industry on fuel will require it to adopt alternative energies earlier as well. Looking at current developments, it looks like by 2030, almost 30% of aviation fuel is expected to come from biofuels and other sustainable sources.

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