According to a recent report by the International Air Transport Association, the number of airplane passengers is likely to grow by a third in the next four years, to 3.9 billion. As more and more people travel greater distances, often as a matter of routine, the issue of energy efficiency of different modes of transport has been investigated by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, with some interesting results. While people tend to think that driving a car is easier on the environment that flying in an airplane, the advanced technology of new airplanes is making them increasingly fuel-efficient.
To match the fuel-efficiency of some newer airplanes, cars would need to be able to get 33.8 miles per gallon, or carry more than one passenger. Current average fuel consumption is 23.8 miles per gallon, meaning that fuel-efficiency must improve by as much as 57 percent to challenge the performance of commercial airline flights. Also, current number of people per car is 1.38, which should be increased to at least 2.3 people to improve fuel-efficiency data for cars. While car-pooling is a concept long embraced by environmentally (and cost conscious) people, there are still a large percentage of cars that travel with only the driver in them, whereas airplanes are generally crammed to the limit with passengers.
Due to huge price increases over the past decade or so, fuel remains the single largest expense for airlines. Associated Press reports that in 2013, US airlines spent up to $50 billion on fuel. In the past five years airlines have been replacing older airplanes with the latest model airplanes from aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, designed to be 15 percent more fuel-efficient than before. In fact, the purchase of new aircraft has been at a higher rate than ever before, with 8,200 being ordered in the past five years. Currently up to 24 planes are manufactured each week, an impressive increase over the 11 per week of a decade ago.
While increased fuel efficiency, reliability and extended range are all motivating factors in the recent airplane buying spree, there are other reasons airlines are upgrading their fleets. Some of the old planes still have ashtrays in the arms of the seats, which clearly are redundant now, plus passengers expect the modern amenities such as power outlets and USB ports that older airplanes don’t have.
As the controversy regarding unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or drones, for commercial use continues, the development of drones moves ahead unabated, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announcing its approval of six locations to carry out drone research, three of which are universities – the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Virginia Tech, and Texas A&M University. The general public may have associated drones with the military in the past, but with the November 2013 appearance of Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos on 60 Minutes where he announced that his company is looking at using drones for deliveries, unmanned aircraft have become a much discussed topic, and raised a number of concerns regarding privacy and safety.
Drones come in all shapes and sizes, and are already widely used in industry and surveillance, as well as in search and rescue operations. Currently 56 government agencies have permission to operate drones within 63 designated drone sites in the United States, besides the six new locations earmarked for drone research. An example of surveillance application of a drone is the MQ-9 Reaper manufactured by General Atomics which is used to patrol the borders of the United States to detect drug dealers and illegal immigrants. In industry small drones, or nano-drones, are routinely used to access areas too small or too dangerous for humans to enter.
Other current and proposed uses for drones include spraying of pesticides on farms; herding and monitoring of livestock (which is reportedly already happening in England), forest fire detection (already being used in France); conservation surveillance of wildlife (already being used in Kenya and Nepal); mapping of land in high-resolution photographs and videos; delivering aid in rural and underdeveloped areas (a project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation); and monitoring archeological sites to prevent vandalism and theft.
While drones may be unmanned, they are not autonomous – yet. Drones must be remote controlled by a trained operator and may not fly above a height determined by the authorities in the area. This is an obstacle Amazon.com will need to overcome if their drone delivery system, dubbed Amazon Prime Air, is to be efficient and cost effective. The FAA is set to revise its regulations regarding drones by 2015 and the aviation authority has predicted that there will be up to 20,000 active drones in the US by 2017, an estimate that many consider to be very conservative. Privacy and safety issues will no doubt continue to be raised, and hopefully addressed, in the coming years as drones become more commonplace.
Visitors to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., can view the record-setting aircraft that pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager flew nonstop around the world in nine days in December 1986. The Rutan Model 76 Voyager Took off from the runway at Edwards Air Force Base on December 14 and landed back at the base 9 days, 3 minutes and 44 seconds later, having covered a distance of 40,212 km as certified by the FAI – Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The Rutan Voyager was designed by Dick Rutan’s brother Burt, a visionary aerospace engineer who has created more than 360 original concepts for aircraft, with 45 of his designs taking flight, some with commercial success, and others as record breakers or research craft.
SpaceShipOne was another of Rutan’s designs to grab news headlines, as in June 2004 it became the first privately built and funded manned aircraft to reach space. After completing a second flight to space within two weeks, the aircraft was awarded the Ansari X Prize of US$10 million. The Ansari X Prize is intended to encourage innovation of low-cost spaceflight.
In March 2005, the single-engine Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, piloted by Steve Fossett, completed the first solo non-stop and non-refueled flight around the world in 2 days, 19 hours and 1 minute. The aircraft was designed by Burt Rutan and built by his company, Scaled Composites. Between February 7 and February 11, 2006, Fossett piloted the GlobalFlyer for the longest flight in history, covering a distance of 41,467.53 km. The aircraft now forms part of the NASM collection which includes six Rutan-design aircraft.
Rutan also designed a range of homebuilt aircraft, with his first being the VariViggen which he started building in 1968 in his home garage, and flew for the first time in April 1972. As he did not have wind-tunnel facilities, Rutan reportedly tied a model of the VariVigen to the roof of his station wagon and measured the forces while driving at speed on empty roads. The Rutan VariEze was based on the VariViggen, and in 1975, piloted by Dick Rutan, it set a world distance record in its class. The Quickie was a single-seat sport aircraft designed by Rutan, which was marketed by Quickie Aircraft for some years. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum has an original Quickie aircraft in their collection.
With the increasing demand for a cleaner burning aviation fuel obtained from renewable resources, Airbus recently signed a deal at the 9th China International Air Show in Zhuhai, with Chinese natural gas supplier ENN Group to develop alternative fuels, including fuel derived from algae oil. Extracted, processed and refined from algae, algae oil is considered to be one of the most promising biofuel products being developed for the aviation industry. Depending on the results of a Sino-US feasibility study, a test flight using the biofuel will take place in China in 2013. ENN has the capacity to produce more than ten tons of algae oil-based jet fuel annually.
High oil-output algae was initially considered as an alternative to fossil fuels back in 1978, under the presidency of Jimmy Carter. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory conducted research which tested more than 3,000 different types of algae, the conclusion being that algae oil-based fuel could be used in place of fossil fuels for heating homes and running transportation. But when the gas crisis which had resulted in high prices and long queues at the gas pumps passed, and carbon emissions were not an issue back then, the need for alternative fuels was no longer urgent.
Today, several government agencies and private companies are supporting projects to make the production of algae oil-based fuel more commercially viable. Although harvested algae releases CO2 when burned, the CO2 is reabsorbed by the growing algae. Referred to as ‘algaculture’ the commercial cultivation of algae can be carried out on land that would not have been used for agriculture, so the product is not competing for land that could be used for food crops, which is a concern with some other biofuel products. Other advantages of cultivating algae for fuel are that they can be grown in ocean water as well as certain grades of wastewater. Also, they are biodegradable, burn cleaner and will not pose the same level of risk to the environment as fossil fuels if spilled.
A report by the United States Department of Energy has estimated that to produce sufficient algae-based fuel to replace all the petroleum-based fuel in the United States would only require the equivalent of around 15,000 square miles of land, or 0.42 percent of the United States. But, while space is not a problem, cost is, and this is one of the main issues to be addressed. It’s not so much a question of whether the product can be produced and whether it works, but whether it will be commercially viable.
With technology constantly being upgraded, and environmental issues taking center stage, aircraft are becoming ever more sophisticated. Have you ever wondered where old and outdated airplanes go when they’re retired from service? In 2010 Google Earth pictures revealed a 2600-acre patch of desert in Tucson, Arizona, reportedly referred to as “The Boneyard”, which is home to an estimated US$35 billion worth of outdated planes. Some of these come in handy when spare parts are required for in-service planes at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and others may be dismantled with parts being recycled and sold off. Entire planes are sold, reportedly sometimes to the military of foreign countries. With its rust-free climate, the Boneyard has been a military storage facility for 60 years and has featured in some Hollywood blockbusters, including the Transformers.
While dismantling and reusing parts of airplanes is being done in various locations and to varying degrees, with the growth and technological advances in the aviation industry, Airbus has revealed that around 9,000 of their airplanes will be withdrawn from service over the next twenty years – and that is just one manufacturer. French company Tarmac Aerosave, based in an area known as “Aerospace Valley” near the town of Tarbes in France, has been dismantling aircraft since 2009. With its primary business being aircraft storage, the aerospace company has branched out into aircraft dismantling, and so far has completely stripped twelve planes. Parts salvaged during the dismantling of planes are tested and repackaged for sale. Old cockpits have been turned into flight simulators, and whatever can’t be sold as reusable parts is sold as recyclable scrap.
In addition to salvaging parts that can be sold, rather than lying unused in storage, the dismantling of airplanes allows engineers to inspect parts for wear and tear, using the information to design and produce more efficient parts for future aircraft. In anticipation of the influx of retired airplanes, a subsidiary of Tarmac Aerosave in Spain is preparing a new site which will have the capacity to store 200 planes, with up to forty models being stripped every year. Project director of business development and change at Airbus notes that there will be no more “from cradle to grave” for aircraft, but they will rather go “from cradle to cradle” as they are stripped and repurposed. This is in keeping with the worldwide push to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), a team of engineers from the University of Lincoln have confirmed that future aircraft could harness and store energy produced by landing gear, which could then be used to taxi the aircraft – a necessary, but very fuel-wasting, function of air travel. In addition to the fuel-inefficiency of taxiing aircraft, leader of the research, Professor Paul Stewart, noted that emissions and noise pollution caused by jet engines is a huge problem with airports worldwide. Little wonder then that the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe (ACARE) has made engine-less taxiing one of its key objectives for the aviation industry in Europe beyond 2020.
Stewart added that if aircraft produced in the next fifteen to twenty years could incorporate the technology currently being investigated it would be enormously beneficial, particularly for people living in the vicinity of airports. The University of Lincoln’s research is assessing a number of methods of capturing the power generated by a landing airplane. In an interview, Professor Stewart, explained than when an Airbus 320 lands, the combination of its speed and weight produces around three megawatts peak available power. The team of researchers has explored different ways of harnessing that available power, including the interaction between magnets attached to the airplane and copper coils implanted in the runway. To date, many of the ideas have not proven to be feasible, either from a technical point of view or financially, or both. Nonetheless, the study has shown that it’s possible to capture energy in this manner, especially in light of advances being made in developing more-electric, or even all-electric, airplanes.
This collaborative effort between the University of Lincoln and the University of Loughborough is being carried out under the direction of the Airport Energy Technologies Network (AETN) which was established in 2008 by the UK-based Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to facilitate low-carbon research in the field of aviation.
In a collaborative project between Penn State University and Slovenian aircraft manufacturer, Pipistrel, the Virus-SW914 aircraft was launched on 8 January this year from Ljubljana, with the aim of circumnavigating the globe, a distance of around 62,000 miles, over the next two months. As the winner of NASA’s 2011 Green Flight Challenge, Pipistrel aims to demonstrate that small aircraft can play an important role in climate science. One of the functions the aircraft will serve is to study the effect of light-absorbing aerosols and black carbon on the earth’s atmosphere as it travels through areas that are not currently being monitored by sensors. Because of the altitude the light aircraft will be traveling at, it will be in the position to obtain three-dimensional images of the atmosphere in predetermined areas.
The aircraft which won the 2011 Green Flight Challenge for Pipistrel, is the Taurus, which covered a distance of 400 miles on a single gallon of gas as it was primarily electric-powered. Specializing in ultra-light aircraft, Pipistrel holds ten FAI (Fédération Aéronautique Internationale) world records.
The Virus-SW914 has a fuel consumption figure of 36 miles per gallon travelling at a speed of around 170 miles per hour. The aircraft being used in the global circumnavigation attempt has extra fuel tanks in its wings and all-electronic instruments. The airplane weighs 640 pounds, has a maximum take-off weight of 1,500 pounds and can climb to an altitude of 30,000 feet.
With pilot Matevz Lenarcic behind the controls, the Virus-SW914 will travel to Morocco, followed by Senegal, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to South America. The route will then travel down the coast of South America before crossing the Antarctic and the Pacific Ocean heading for New Zealand, Australia and southeast Asia and traveling back to Africa. When crossing Mount Everest in the Himalayas, Lenarcic will take photographs and gather data at different altitudes in areas that have not yet been monitored for climate change. The aerosol inlet feature of the Virus-SW914 is designed to measure aerosol optical properties at different wavelengths, providing valuable data for scientists and climate change research.
Taking place since 2005, the Aviation Management Conference is hosted by the Aviation Management Honours programme of Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Both students and international professionals will be contributing to the event. Research topics include Air Traffic Control, Airline Operator, Future Airport and Sustainable Regional Airports. Speakers include Prof. Antonin Kazda, Guillaume Burghauwt, Leo Trap and Dimmen Breen.
Date: 14 December 2011
Time: 08:15 to 17:15
Venue: Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
A look at the evolution of aviation reveals that many times it was flight enthusiasts and amateurs who led the way in developing foundations on which improvements could be made to transform and develop the world of aviation as it is known today. It is for these very reasons that the National Transportation Safety Board will be conducting research into the technology and innovations of amateur built and experimental aircraft. Not only will it give the board insight into the world of experimental aircraft but assist them in establishing what safety measures are being used, as well as the experience levels of these builders.
Later in July the Experimental Aircraft Association will be hosting their annual festival, named AirVenture, where experimental aircraft will be flown in from all over the United States to participate in this event. It lasts for a week and is one of the most popular and largest aviation events on the calendar. To assist the National Transportation Safety Board in their research, the Experimental Aircraft Association will be conducting a survey amongst their more than one hundred thousand members. The survey questionnaire will be asking members about pilot training in regard to their aircraft, if pilots need to undergo additional training to pilot the aircraft, what engines were used in their design, how they configured their landing gear, and if their aircraft has any safety features such as airbags and seat belts. Members will also be asked about flight hours, what type of aircraft they have and if they hold any certificates.
The survey and its answers will allow the National Transportation Safety Board to gather enough information to find out what training and background the people working on the aircraft have, what parts of the aircraft are being modified and the reasons for modifying the parts, as well as what technical specifications the builders are following. Understanding how the experimental aircraft are being built and the experience that the builders have will give the National Transportation Safety Board the opportunity to assist experimental aircraft builders in increasing their safety measures, as it has been confirmed that of the estimated one thousand five hundred accidents that occurred in 2010, two hundred of them were amateur built aircraft, and they make up fifteen percent of the aircraft in the United States. Assisting this area of aviation will be advantageous for the experimental aviation industry and advise the NTSB on where they will be able to assist.
Researching and studying the holes that are made by aircraft in clouds, referred to as canals or hole-punches, has revealed very interesting facts for researchers. A team of researchers concentrated on six airports in particular, including the very busy Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. By looking at the effect that aircraft had on the clouds, it was found that their disruption of the clouds could lead to either snowfall or rain within a sixty mile radius around the airport. The unusual holes can therefore set off a reaction to create additional rain or snow.
Leader of the study and the author of related research paper, Andrew Heymsfield (National Center for Atmospheric Research – Bolder, Colorado), commented that this unintended weather phenomenon occurred approximately five percent of the time these hole-punches were created and this increases in winter from between ten to fifteen percent. To understand how this reaction happens, it is important to remember that airplanes take-off into the wind. Clouds generally have an average temperature of between zero to minus forty degrees Celsius. At these temperatures clouds are filled with cooled water droplets that are held in suspension. An aircraft then moving through these clouds is able to seed ice crystals, which in turn creates snowfall.
Seeding these droplets is a reaction created when the jet engines of the airplane force the clouds to expand, and with the air rushing either through the propellers or underneath the aircrafts wings, the air is cooled even further, which then cools the suspended droplets, making them heavier and therefore creating either rain or snow. With propeller aircraft the hole-punching formation occurs at about minus ten degrees, and at minus twenty degrees Celsius for jet planes. Aircraft that are fitted with propellers are six percent more likely to seed clouds, while jet aircraft only two to three percent.
Heymsfield went on to say that even though they now know and understand how cloud seeding works, and there is a possibility of altering rainfall and snowfall, airplanes trigger this effect purely accidentally and it does not occur each time.