Aircraft manufacturer Airbus recently released its latest installment of the “Future by Airbus” report, its vision for a sustainable aviation industry in 2050 and beyond. For the first time, the report looked at how the aircraft is operated both on the ground and in the air.
“Our engineers are continuously encouraged to think widely and come up with ‘disruptive’ ideas which will assist our industry in meeting the 2050 targets we have signed up to,” said Charles Champion, Executive Vice President Engineering at Airbus.
“These and the other tough environmental targets will only be met by a combination of investment in smarter aircraft design and optimising the environment in which the aircraft operates. That is why our latest Future by Airbus Smarter Skies concepts focus on not just what we fly but, how we may fly in 2050 and beyond.”
Airbus noted that there are already steps that could be taken today to enhance the sustainability of flight times. If the Air Traffic Management (ATM) system and technology on board Airbus aircraft was optimised, they found that flights in Europe and the US could on average be approximately 13 minutes shorter, and the same could be said for flights elsewhere.
Subsequently, take the average 30 million flights per year for Europe and the US, such a reduction in flight time would mean a saving of 9 million tonnes of excess fuel annually, equating to over 28 million tonnes of avoidable C02 emissions and a total saving of 5 million hours of excess flight time.
And with continued improvements to aircraft design, alternative energy sources, and new ways of flying, these improvements can only increase over the following decades. Airbus is already working on these sorts of innovative solutions in the hopes of meeting the targets they have set themselves and signed up for.
The Future by Airbus concentrates on just that and the Smarter Skies vision consists of five concepts which could be implemented across all the stages of an aircraft’s operation to reduce waste in the system (waste in time, waste in fuel, reduction of CO2). These are:
Aircraft take-off in continuous ‘eco-climb’
- Aircraft launched through assisted take-offs using renewably powered, propelled acceleration, allowing steeper climb from airports to minimise noise and reach efficient cruise altitudes quicker.
- As space becomes a premium and mega-cities become a reality, this approach could also minimise land use, as shorter runways could be utilised.
Aircraft in free flight and formation along ‘express skyways’
- Highly intelligent aircraft would be able to “self-organise” and select the most efficient and environmentally friendly routes (“free flight”), making the optimum use of prevailing weather and atmospheric conditions.
- High frequency routes would also allow aircraft to benefit from flying in formation like birds during cruise bringing efficiency improvements due to drag reduction and lower energy use.
Low-noise, free-glide approaches and landings
- Aircraft allowed to take free glide approaches into airports that reduce emissions during the overall decent and reduce noise during the steeper approach as there is no need for engine thrust or air breaking.
- These approaches would also reduce the landing speed earlier which would make shorter landing distances achievable (less runway needed).
Low emission ground operations
- On landing aircraft engines could be switched off sooner and runways cleared faster, ground handling emissions could be cut.
- Technology could optimise an aircraft’s landing position with enough accuracy for an autonomous renewably powered taxiing carriage to be ready, so aircraft could be transported away from runways quicker, which would optimise terminal space, and remove runway and gate limitations.
Powering future aircraft and infrastructure
- The use of sustainable biofuels and other potential alternative energy sources (such as electricity, hydrogen, solar etc) will be necessary to secure supply and further reduce aviation’s environmental footprint in the long term. This will allow the extensive introduction of regionally sourced renewable energy close to airports, feeding both aircraft and infrastructure requirements sustainably.
“We know people want to fly more in the future and our forecasts support this. We also know that they don’t want to fly at any cost,” says Charles Champion. Our focus at Airbus is on meeting this continuous growth in demand, keeping the passenger, our customers and the environment at the centre of our thinking. The future of sustainable aviation is the sum of many parts and success will require collaboration amongst all the parties who are passionate about ensuring a successful prospect for aviation.”