No Pilot, V-Formation: Jet Flight of the Future?

Airplanes that draft would be more fuel efficient, and Boeing is taking a look
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 13, 2017 10:45 AM CDT

(Newser) – To cut fuel costs in aircraft, Boeing and NASA have been looking toward geese for inspiration—or, more precisely, the V-shaped pattern preferred by migratory birds. That's because so-called wake-surfing (think of bicycles or cars drafting behind others) is efficient—and it doesn't require newly designed aircraft to pull off, reports Bloomberg. In fact, collision-avoidance technology already widely available in cockpits would be key. The problem is in the logistics: It's hard enough to sort out scheduling now, but to get the ideal number of commercial aircraft to share the same path in the sky for long enough to make the efficiency worth the effort would require serious problem solving. "Airlines can barely keep a schedule anyway," says one aerospace engineer. "I would argue that they can't."

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NASA is in the midst of a study investigating the effect of wake-surfing on fuel efficiency and won't release any findings yet, but one researcher points to studies showing up to 15% in fuel savings. Boeing is also studying dozens of other options, including long glider wings and artificial intelligence. Consumerist looks at a another cost-saving possibility: pilotless flights. They would save serious cash, given pilots cost $31 billion a year, which doesn't count $3 billion in pilot training. One report finds that the savings passed onto passengers—should any be willing to fly in a pilotless plane—would be 11% off the ticket price. Wake-surfing, meanwhile, could always be used to save fuel in military aircraft and flocks of drones delivering packages. (Boeing is also investigating a dramatic change to take-offs and landings.)

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