Airbus last week issued the latest installment of its future vision for aviation in 2050 and beyond, describing new ways of operating across all phases of flight. The company’s “Smarter Skies” vision centers on a “sustainable” aviation system that saves time, conserves fuel and reduces emissions. For the first time, the vision looks beyond smarter aircraft design to the efficiencies potentially derived from airspace optimization, or making the best use of the environment in which an aircraft operates, Airbus said.
The aircraft manufacturer estimates that making the best use of the airspace through air traffic management (ATM) procedures as well as technology already installed on aircraft could shorten flights in the U.S. and Europe by an average of 13 minutes or more, assuming 30 million flights per year.
The “Smarter Skies” vision suggests a radical evolution of aircraft operations and ATM procedures such as 4-D trajectories and optimized profile descents currently under development. Aircraft would launch through “assisted takeoffs using renewably powered, propelled acceleration,” climbing more steeply from airports. In flight, they would “self-organize” and select the most efficient routes, making the optimum use of prevailing weather and atmospheric conditions–an old concept, not yet realized, known as “free flight.” Newer is the Airbus idea of aircraft “flying in formation like birds” in cruise flight along high-density routes.
Aircraft would fly steeper, “free glide approaches” into airports with “no need” for engine thrust or air braking, reducing emissions during the overall descent and lowering noise on approach. The concept resembles the optimized profile descents under development today, whereby an aircraft chooses the most efficient point to begin its descent to the airport and uses minimal thrust settings to maintain its descent path.
On the ground, an “autonomous renewably powered taxiing carriage” would stand ready at the aircraft’s landing position to whisk it more quickly from the runway, optimizing terminal space and surface operations. Biofuels and alternative energy sources would underpin the future infrastructure, Airbus said, creating demand for “regionally sourced renewable energy close to airports.”
Along with Boeing and other manufacturers, Airbus is engaged on multiple fronts to achieve future aviation system efficiencies. Airbus serves as a full member of the Single European Sky ATM Research (Sesar) joint undertaking, the public-private partnership pursuing European airspace modernization, and as an active participant in the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) effort in the U.S.