By lining up cruising aircraft in a V-shaped formation favored by Canada geese, carriers would be able to produce a leap in efficiency without investing in structural makeovers or futuristic technology. The idea is to link the flying convoys safely using navigation and collision-avoidance tools that already are widely installed in cockpits.
“Think of a car drafting a truck, or one bike rider drafting another,” said Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president for product development. “It essentially allows you, if you are flying in the right spot, to reduce your fuel burn. But you’ve got to be there for a long time.”
Wake surfing, as the avian technique is known, involves harvesting energy from a lead plane — a potential way to cut fuel bills, which typically rank as the biggest or second-biggest expense for airlines. A researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration points to studies showing fuel savings of 10 percent to 15 percent, on a par with pricier options such as upgrading engines or installing winglets.
The concept is one of dozens under study at Boeing. The company is also looking at long, glider-like wings beneath a plane to save fuel, as well as how to manage the boom from supersonic flights. The Chicago-based planemaker is also studying artificial intelligence that would allow a single pilot to be at the controls during a long cruise, a potential step toward fully autonomous flights.
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