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 CNBC.com 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.
"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.