Unlocking transport congestion
With the world's population above 7 billion, more than 2.5 billion passengers fly each year. With another 2 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2050, there are going to be a lot more people on the move. So as well as finding ways to reduce the amount of emissions created by aircraft when they fly between airports, we also need to find ways to avoid having fuel guzzling traffic jams above and around the airports.
When you take a plane today it probably feels like you are travelling directly between two cities. In reality you could well have detoured round bad weather, military air space, congestion or even the borders of certain unfriendly countries. What's more, aircraft flying today must remain a certain distance apart for safety reasons - the aerial equivalent to staying several car lengths apart on the road. So even when you arrive at the destination you may spend a bit of time flying in circles waiting for your turn to use the landing strip. Yet according to the Air Transport Association (IATA), reducing flight time by even one minute globally would save 4.8 million tonnes of CO2every year.
If there is already such a big challenge today and by 2050 there could be four times as many planes but less ground space available for airports, how can we keep the skies safe and reduce emissions?
In the future, thanks to new technologies and processes being developed for navigation, surveillance and communication, planes could be able to follow each other more closely, to use direct flight paths and to land immediately on arrival.
SESAR & NextGen
European airspace is among the most crowded in the world, with over 33,000 flights on busy days. Airports like New York's JFK has nearly 600 aircraft taking off every day, with nearly half of them within a six hour peak time window. And, nearly three quarters of the world's air traffic passes through just 114 airports (out of more than 2,300)!
That's why Airbus is involved in projects on both sides of the Atlantic to help improve air traffic management.
The Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR) and its North American cousin, The Next Generation Air Transportation System, (NextGen) will help provide quicker flights, less fuel burn and emissions, shorter routes and less congestion. Advanced global positioning system (GPS) will allow more precise flight tracking. This will let more aircraft fly in the same airspace and make it easier for them to follow more efficient routes, even in bad weather. In Europe alone, SESAR should allow three times as much air traffic to be handled' while also improving safety.
As well as finding solutions to this problem by working with engineers, we might also be able to find some just by taking a look at nature around us.
In nature, large birds sometimes flying together to save energy and travel further. When flying in formation - as you see with migrating geese or ducks - the leading bird's wings generate whirling masses of air. The following bird benefits from this air current to get some free extra lift, which means it needs to use less energy to fly.
Aircraft wings create the same effect, which we call trailing vortexes. Military pilots often use the same formation flying techniques to reduce the amount of energy - fuel burn - that they use.
At the moment, passenger aircraft do not use this technique because of safety concerns.
However, Airbus is working with some of its partners to explore this idea as a way to reduce both fuel burn and emissions on long distance flights.
In fact, this approach was also proposed by a young team of graduate engineers who made it to the final of the Airbus Fly Your Ideas challenge.
Did you know?
"We surveyed over 10,000 people around the world who will be passengers in 2050 to ask what they want from the aviation industry in the future.
Their message was clear – we need to help as many people as possible share in the benefits that air transport brings, but we need to achieve this while looking after the environment."