Since I’m obviously biased, this article from NewScientist will have to speak for itself:
One day “intelligent” passenger aircraft will cruise across oceans in low-drag, energy-saving formations, like flocks of geese. So said European plane-maker Airbus at its annual technology look-ahead conference last night.
Airbus added that emissions could be cut by using a superfast ground vehicle to catapult future aircraft into the air, so that it reaches cruising speed and altitude faster. And it could land with the engines switched off, in a long, controlled “free glide” to the runway.
>Bias filter OFF…<
And of course, it’ll all be controlled by super-genius computers. Never underestimate Airbus’s ability to overestimate technology.
Or, for that matter, the popular media’s willingness to lap up a sexy new tech storie, no matter how much of it is just unicorns farting rainbows.
Where to begin?
Sure, airliners could fly formation. Maybe forming up in a big flying V would provide some marginal drag reductions, but not enough to make it worth the trouble. Just getting a single widebody planned, loaded, and prepped for a flight across the pond is enough work without having to coordinate the timing with a dozen other flights.
And of course all of this ignores the vagaries of weather and air traffic. Holding close formation through North Atlantic weather with hundreds of passengers on each airplane? Now there’s a disaster movie just waiting to be written.
Landing with the engines switched off? Theoretically, sure. But what happens if you miss the approach and have to go around?
Oh, right. Technology will solve all of that, I guess. But a couple of engines at flight idle just waiting to be spun up for a wave-off would be nice, too.
Here’s the deal: an optimum descent right now involves hardly any work from the engines. Where it becomes inefficient is when lots and lots of them are trying to get to the same place at the same time, so ATC has to get creative to maintain separation. It leads to something we call “dive and drive”. UPS and United have done a lot of work with the Feds to allow something called “constant descent” approaches, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. And it’s a lot more complicated than it might sound at first blush.
So before we go putting too much faith in our ability to write bulletproof control software, let’s keep this little object lesson in mind: Air France 447. It’s an example of what can happen when pilots are turned into “systems managers”.