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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Flying the Smarter Skies

Airbus has big ideas for how to improve commercial flight in the next 40 years.

  • September 13, 2012

The global aircraft manufacturer Airbus recently put out its vision for how commercial flight might change by 2050. Interestingly, though Airbus is a manufacturer, the company delved into issues of how airplanes are operated on the ground and in the air in an effort to design a smarter and more efficient future for commercial aviation.

Airbus calls this vision “Smarter Skies.” There are five tenets of the vision.

First, Airbus imagines that its planes could take off in what it calls “eco-climb.” The idea is to launch planes through “assisted take-offs using renewably powered, propelled acceleration.” This allows a steeper climb out of an airport–which is both quieter for folks on the ground, and enables the plane to reach altitude sooner.

Second, Airbus envisions fleets of aircraft that could dynamically choose the most efficient route to their destinations, based on the weather and atmospheric conditions of the moment. In certain highly-trafficked flight corridors, planes could even fly in formation like birds, a scenario that would reduce drag and thus save energy.

Third, Airbus thinks that planes should be able to cut their engines as they descend, instead freely gliding through their approaches to airports. As with the steeper “eco-climb,” a gliding descent would reduce noise and save energy. Since the aircraft would land at a lower speed than is common now, you’d also need less runway.

Fourth, Airbus thinks there’s no reason to run the airplane’s engine so much once the plane lands on the ground. Technology optimizing airplanes’ landing positions could help get them off the runway quicker.

Finally, and less excitingly from the standpoint of a hardware blogger, Airbus wants to use sustainable biofuels.

Airbus has an entire site devoted to its vision of the future, as well as a gallery of over 600 videos on the topic.

Of the above, the vision of fleets of aircraft flying in formation is the most compelling–and potentially controversial. As is the whole notion of a “smart” aircraft, which would seem to suggest automation over human control. But computerization of flight is arguably risky business–computer errors have caused hairy situations in the air in the past. In 2008, a Qantas Airbus took a nosedive following “incorrect data from a sensor” that was then fed to “computers controlling the flight.” A report concluded, chillingly, “The failure mode was probably initiated by a single, rare type of trigger event combined with marginal susceptibility to that type of event within the CPU (central processor unit) module’s hardware.”

Airbus claims not to be planning to outsource crucial safety decisions to computers, though.  “In our business safety is number one,” Charles Champion of Airbus told New Scientist. “This is why we would not envisage a system where the pilot is not in control of the aircraft.”

Still, it’s undoubtedly true that our skies are more computerized than ever, and will probably continue along that trend. Does that frighten or reassure you?

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