Why passenger planes may soon fly in formation just like birds

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Soon, it may be hard to tell, as giant aerospace company Airbus has recently come up with a method to save jet fuel that involves having airplanes fly in formation, just like a flock of migrating geese.

Inspired by the flight technique of migrating birds, researchers at Airbus UpNext – the manufacturer’s research incubator – have put forward the idea of adopting the same aerodynamic efficiencies that arise when birds fly in close formation.

When flying nearby one another, each bird – or airplane – takes advantage of a change in airflow that results from the next object’s trail. As Futurism explains, the tip of each bird’s wings creates a vortex, which can provide a lift for the next bird behind it.

In a bid to test the idea, UpNext plans to use two large commercial jets as part of a demonstration project called “fello’fly,” which is expected to mimic the same principles of energy efficiency that benefit birds.

“[The pilots] will be 1 1/2 to 2 nautical miles away from the leading aircraft, and slightly offset, which means they are on the side of the vortex,” explained Bour Schaeffer, an experienced flight-test engineer, to CNN. “It’s no longer the vortex, it’s the smooth current of rotating air which is next to the vortex, and we use the updraft of this air.”

According to Schaeffer, taking advantage of the free lift in this updraft of air would enable planes to achieve between 5% and 10% of fuel savings, “an enormous number” which could help the aviation industry become more sustainable.

Before the technique becomes mainstream, however, the team would have to conduct a number of other safety tests and convince government aviation agencies and airlines that having planes fly in formation is a good idea.

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