Industrial Revolutions

How sharkskin could improve your flight

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Biomimicry and drones: Aviation's future

In a little over a 100 years, the aviation industry has made staggering progress, from the Wright Brothers flight in 1903 to connecting countries via trade and tourism today. Now it looks as though the animal kingdom will be helping aviation make the next big leap forward.

At Airbus, the focus is very much on the future of flight. The company is looking at how innovation is going to transform the way we fly, using the year 2050 as a benchmark. Every year, Airbus invests 2 billion euros in research and development, filing around 500 patents annually.

The possibilities of formation flying, bio-mimicry and the use of clean fuels – perhaps even solar powered planes – are all being explored by Airbus as ways of creating a more efficient, greener aviation industry.

"From our point of view, nature is inspiring," Charles Champion, Executive Vice President of Engineering at Airbus, told in a phone interview.

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Sharks have been one unlikely source of inspiration, according to Champion. "If you look with a microscope at their skin, you will see these very small grooves. They have these grooves to go faster in the water," he said.

"We've been working for quite a while on 'riblets', putting a material with really small grooves on the skin of the aircraft, which allows us to limit drag and reduce by a couple of percent fuel consumption," he added. "Of course, you need to be able to industrialize. Nature has taken thousands of years to adapt, and we're trying to do that faster, in a matter of years."

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, CO2 emissions from air transport currently make up around 2 percent of overall CO2 emissions.

It is within this context that Airbus has been investigating the viability of alternative fuel sources. "In the longer term, if I start dreaming, we are looking at hybrid aircraft and electrical propulsion,"Champion said.

"For the time being, the technology does not allow it on larger commercial aircraft...nevertheless, we are looking at these types of energies," he added. Airbus Group, Airbus' parent company, is currently working on the development of a two-seater plane that will be powered by hybrid energy.

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"We contributed to the testing of algae and the development of algae-based fuel and also biomass…on these, we are acting as a promoter of feasibility, but afterwards, the actual implementation depends a lot on the business case," he added.

The feasibility of using alternative fuels in aviation – something which Airbus promotes – depends on the market, according to Champion. "Do we want to subsidize…or to actually wait until the price of fuels go above current levels, which then would trigger, of course, a decision to invest," he said.

"It's a difficult one, because with the price of fuel today, it's very difficult to sustain a business case for alternative fuels, unless of course it's subsidized," Champion added.

Charles Bowman | The Image Bank | Getty Images

While some of Airbus' ideas are still at the conceptual stage, engineers at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center at the University of Sheffield have undertaken a project that could have an impact on aviation in the near future.

They have developed a technique using 3D printing and fused deposition modelling (FDM) that could speed up the cost effective, mass manufacture of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Currently, costs range from $575 for a compact drone with a camera to around $13 million for a state of the art military grade one.

"The traditional method for building a small aircraft like this would maybe be a composite wrapped around a...core," Garth Nicholson, from the University of Sheffield, told in a phone interview.

"Or, you could build it up using wooden ribs…and then cover it with plastic or some other covering material. That's quite time-consuming, and if you wanted to make a lot of them it would take a very long time and each one would be slightly different," he added.

"With the FDM process, every one is pretty much identical to the previous one. You can build an aircraft of that size, which is one and a half metre's wingspan, in under 24 hours."

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Already, we are seeing major companies such as Amazon and BP investigating the possibility of using drones commercially. Just last week it was reported that BP is to use drones to inspect pipelines in Alaska.

If identical drones were able to be manufactured in less than a day, the implications of this technique could have huge potential across a wide range of industries.

"If you could make them cheap enough, potentially you could make them disposable," Nicholson said. "If you wanted to send one of these things out to look for something and you didn't need it back, then that would immediately double its range," he added.

Nicholson and his team are currently looking into the possibilities of developing a powered version of their drone that is guided by GPS or cameras.

"I'd be perfectly happy if it was used for something like search and rescue, humanitarian aid, something where you could get medicines to somebody in a difficult to get to scenario, whether that's in terms of terrain or other would be great if it were used for something positive," Nicholson added.

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