A Flock of Planes

Birds do it. They fly in v-shaped formations because it cuts down drag when flying thus saving them energy; therefore, it is a very efficient way to fly.

So efficient, in fact, that by the second half of this century, planes may also fly in formation in a bid to cut costs, lower greenhouse gases and to use less fuel.

This is one of the suggestions that is canvassed in Aero 2075, a report on aviation that has been conducted on behalf of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kingdom. This study looks at the future of aviation, which is a very fast growing sector, but which could result in very congested skies, particularly around airports.

According to the report: Aeroplanes, flying long-haul, converge into this V-shaped formation. Travelling in this formation improves aerodynamics and could yield fuel savings of up to 12%. In addition to saving fuel, formation flying can cut emissions of greenhouse gases known as nitrogen oxides by a quarter.

The report goes on to explain how formation flying would be achieved: As the air flow hits the first aircraft and flows down the wings to winglets where it creates a vortex. This vortex provides lift and drag which is then combined with the vortices of the aeroplanes flying behind; the combine vortex produces less drag on the individual aircraft flying within the formation.
The aeroplanes could be autonomous, that is, they are controlled by computer programmes rather than pilots. Remote sensing equipment such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and IR (Infra-red) cameras would allow the aircrafts to autonomously position themselves to make the maximum use of the vortexes from the aircraft ahead of them. The flight separation of each plane within the formation would be somewhere in the region of two miles to take advantage of the vortices

Of course, not all aircraft take off or land at the same time, and not all aircraft are heading in exactly the same direction. But the engineers have even thought of those problems and explain that: The aircraft could join the flight mass through mechanical docking to form a semi-rigid body of several aircraft. The automated docking would allow aircraft to join the flock in a computer determined best flock position which it would approach on automatic control and then latch to the flock.

Aircraft leaving the flock would need to have pre-programmed their sequence of departure so that they were not locked into the centre of the flock when they needed to leave.

All which just goes to prove that as many birds already fly in formation, they must indeed be smarter than we mere humans.

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