Engineers at Airbus have unveiled a small remote-controlled aircraft demonstrator inspired by the flight of the albatross bird. Constructed from carbon-fiber and glass-fiber-reinforced polymers, the AlbatrosOne has “semi-aerostatic” flapping wings that can reduce drag and combat turbulence. The aircraft has just successfully completed its first “gate-to-gate” demonstration.
Airbus is the world’s largest aircraft maker, with a net worth of about $61.5 billion as of October 2020. The company’s operations cover industry-leading commercial aircraft, helicopters, and space and defense products and services. With a strategy based on cutting-edge technologies, Airbus is always on the lookout for innovation.
The AlbatrosOne is one of the latest examples of Airbus’s initiative. Inspired by the albatross seabird, which is capable of staying in the air for hours using little wing exertion, the aircraft has just achieved a new milestone: A “gate-to-gate” demonstration with wing-tips that are 75% longer than those tested in the first phase.
As the engineer project leader Tom Wilson explained, the concept of hinged wingtips is not new. Military jets have employed this design to create extra capacity, although the AlbatrosOne will be the first aircraft to try freely flapping wings that are a third of the total length of the wing.
The albatross bird can lock its wings at the shoulder in order to navigate wind speeds while traveling long distances and facing wind gusts. The AlbatrosOne wing-tips are somewhat similar - even the aspect ratio of them matches that of the birds.
The main advantage of these semi-aeroelastic hinged wings is that they can help aircraft surf through wind gusts without transferring the bending loads to the main wing. The remarkable technology also requires fewer materials (carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers) to make the wings strong, resulting in reduced total weight. And because the drag is also lessened, the aircraft saves fuel and produces significantly less CO2 emissions. If the wings are to be extended more, the reductions can continue without increasing wing weight.
Through 2019, the AlbatrosOne completed a series of innovative ground-based tests that confirmed mass properties, wing stall behavior, and wing-tip release and recovery mechanisms. The more recent “gate-to-gate” demonstration proved how freely flapping wing-tips could alleviate wing loads and increase roll rate, as well as how to safely land an aircraft that uses this technology.
Inspired By Nature
The AlbatrosOne is one of many designs that Airbus has created inspired by animals - and no, technically, this does not include the heavy weight lifter Beluga, although the aesthetic similarity to the animal is rather uncanny.
Airbus’s “fello’fly project” is continuously experimenting with alternative flying techniques inspired by biomimicry. In July 2019, the company unveiled its “Bird of Prey” concept aircraft, a hybrid-electric turbo-propeller with a set of feathers on the tail and each wingtip similar to the natural features of eagles, hawks, and other aerial predators.
Other parts of the natural world have also been used as inspiration for aircraft design solutions. For example, Airbus has been experimenting with small “riblet” patches or textured surfaces that can be applied to the fuselage and wings and imitates the effect of sharkskin in order to reduce drag during high speeds. The Airbus A320neo and some of the older A320 family planes also have upwards-bent wingtips or “sharklets” (named after white sharks) that can reduce drag.
In April 2020, Airbus announced it was cutting aircraft production by a third due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The company’s profits for the quarter ending June 2020 showed a 55.52% decline compared to the previous year. About 15,000 positions could be reduced by summer 2021. Although Airbus has received government support, traffic air is not expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2023 to 2025.
Airbus, however, continues to develop novel aircraft and is actively working on a sustainable future for aerospace. The company has committed to the “Flightpath 2050,” an aviation industry plan that is committed to reducing noise, CO2, and NOx emissions. In association with Honeywell and JetBlue, Airbus has also developed a biofuel that reduces dependence on fossil fuels and claims to have the potential to replace up to a third of the world’s aviation fuel.
The Future of AlbatrossOne
Now that the AlbatrossOne proof-of-concept was achieved at a small scale, Airbus’s efforts are expected to continue toward a larger one. There are still several steps to demonstrate the availability of the product, but the company’s engineers are determined to alleviate wing loads and avoid tip stall for improved aircraft performance.
The AlbatrossOne development process could help engineers design lighter and more fuel-efficient aircraft. With a reduction of drag and the consequential beneficial effects on environmental impact and fuel consumption, as well as the combating of the effects of turbulence, Airbus is already revolutionizing aircraft wing design.