Can Weird-Looking Planes Save the Planet?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The shape of passenger airplanes has remained largely the same since the 1950s. Now radically new designs are promising to turn the aviation industry greener — finally.
By Tom Cassauwers
- The aviation industry has focused on more efficient fuels and new propulsion systems to become greener.
- Now innovators are designing radical new aircraft that consume a fraction of the fuel used by traditional commercial planes, while carrying a comparable number of passengers.
As an engineer for the U.S. military, Bill Otto Sr. worked on the Minuteman intercontinental missiles, developed new bodies for torpedoes and was chief scientist on the B-1 bomber avionics study. Then, after becoming a consultant, he shifted his attention to private airplane travel. He wanted a private jet, yet they were all very expensive — particularly because of poor fuel efficiency. So, like a good engineer, he started building his own.
“He set out to design an aircraft that could do transcontinental travel at speeds and costs comparable to commercial airlines,” explains Bill Otto Jr., his son, who works at his father’s company, Otto Aviation. Otto Sr. currently serves as the chief scientist of the company.
The result of that idea was officially announced this year. The Celera 500L, according to Chief Technology Officer David Bogue, is “designed for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, and is coupled with a very effective propulsion system.” Its propeller is at the rear of the fuselage. The plane looks like a bullet, with the wings way back. With it, Otto Aviation hopes to disrupt the private airplane industry. Today, only the rich can afford to charter a private jet. But efficient airplanes like the Celera 500L could make it perfectly affordable for, say, a big family looking to hire a jet when they take a vacation.
At the heart of this approach is a largely ignored strategy to make aviation more green than ever, which is now beginning to gain traction. For the most part, the aviation industry has focused on more efficient fuels and new propulsion systems. Airbus is investigating whether hydrogen can work as fuel for its planes. And this year, startup ZeroAvia completed the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a six-seater electric airplane.
Sustainable fuel and electric power are great, but we shouldn’t neglect the efficiency of the vehicle.
David Zingg, University of Toronto
Yet that leaves out aerodynamics. The shape of passenger airplanes has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s, and climate change might be the impetus to introduce more radical designs, like the Celera 500L. Or consider a plane that — instead of a fuselage and two wings — has just one giant flying wing. It’s a concept that the Flying-V team at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is researching. This renewed focus on aerodynamics is critical, say experts.
“The opportunities in aerodynamics aren’t getting the attention they deserve,” says David Zingg, director of the Centre for Research in Sustainable Aviation at the University of Toronto. “If we want to make airplanes more sustainable, we need to make progress on all different fronts. Sustainable fuel and electric power are great, but we shouldn’t neglect the efficiency of the vehicle.”
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, commercial aviation in 2018 emitted 2.4 percent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, its footprint rapidly increasing.
The Celera 500L would break with that pattern. It is eight to nine times more fuel efficient than a comparable private jet, according to Otto Aviation. The Flying-V is equally revolutionary.
As the name suggests, the craft looks like a massive flying V. It doesn’t have a conventional tail, and the passengers would be seated inside the wings. This way the drag is reduced, and the plane flies more efficiently. Current tests suggest that the Flying-V would use 20 percent less fuel compared to an Airbus A350-900 plane, while carrying a comparable number of passengers.
“It’s a completely different airplane concept,” says Roelof Vos, assistant professor and project leader of the Flying-V project. “The fuselage and wings are integrated into one component.”
So far, the Flying-V team has only tested a 3-meter-wide model in flight — this past summer — but the potential is evident. “If you use less energy, you get a direct profit,” says Vos. “Biofuels and new propulsion systems are interesting, but if you save 20 percent in advance, that’s great.”
Nevertheless challenges remain for researchers and firms focusing on aerodynamics as a key part of the green aviation equation. The lack of a tail can make it harder for pilots to control the plane, especially at low speeds. The cockpit is higher up than in a regular jet. And then there are the human issues. Because the cabin is divided into the two wings, evacuation procedures would be more complicated than in a regular aircraft — especially if one side gets blocked in an accident. The flying wing would also reduce the number of window seats.
Yet, when the climate is at stake, those are minor compromises, and Vos is confident the technical challenges can be resolved.
The bigger problem might come from airplane builders. “Currently there’s a duopoly between Boeing and Airbus,” says Zingg. Designing a new passenger plane is a massive, risky operation. When the Boeing 737 MAX had technical problems that caused several crashes, the firm lost more than $18.7 billion according to its own calculations. At the same time, there’s isn’t much competition in the market, which makes airplane construction a conservative and low-profit industry. Boeing and Airbus might not be willing to gamble away their business on a radical new design.
Vos recognizes this, although Airbus is a partner in the Flying-V project, but he says large passenger aircraft aren’t just some short-term technology. To design them, you need to be in it for the long haul. “In the next five to 10 years, we will mainly do research,” he says. Once key technical challenges are resolved, it will take a manufacturer another decade to “bring the plane to market,” Vos explains.
That places the Flying-V projected market launch, around 2040, an ideal time according to Vos, because airlines will be phasing out their Airbus A350 jets by then. “We cannot start in 10 years, because then there’s not enough time for a radical new design,” he says. “If we want to introduce this in a few decades, we need to start our work now.”
- Tom Cassauwers, OZY Author Contact Tom Cassauwers