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Technological innovation to reduce Air Transport environmental impact

New technological innovation on the horizon have the potential to significantly decrease environmental impact from aviation, and solutions that are being implemented today also promise other savings.

Improving the efficiency of aircraft to reduce the level of emissions per passenger or over the distance flown is a important focal point for technological innovation.

Nature has long inspired mankind. Are not birds in fact the inspiration of the modern day plane?

 So it is no surprise that engineers have looked to the flight of birds for further inspiration.

Moveable wing surfaces

In the same way that sea birds sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and react by adjusting the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift, probes in the nose of the new Airbus A350XWB detects gusts ahead of the wing and deploy moveable surfaces for more efficient flight. This helps reduce fuel burn and, therefore, emissions.

Eagle inspired winglets

If the wings of large birds of prey were too long, their turning circle would be too big to fit inside the rising columns of warm air which they use to soar. The eagle's wings perfectly balance maximum lift with minimum length by curling feathers up at the tips until they are almost vertical.

  But thanks to small devices known as 'winglets,' which mimic the upward curl of the eagle's feathers, 3-5% of reduction in fuel burn has been achieved.

(source air transport action group)

This principle plays a major part in the design A380. If it was built to a conventional design, the planes wingspan would have been three metres too long for the world's airports.

The A380's wings are 20cm inside airport limits but still provide enough lift for the world's largest passenger aircraft to fly efficiently - saving fuel, lowering emissions and reducing airport congestion

Operational efficiency

Lots of people look to lose weight to improve their performance; the same is true in the battle for efficiency by reducing the weight on board the plane uses less fuel.

Boeing says that its 787 Dreamliner will cut fuel use by 20% thanks to the technological innovation used in their new engines and the use of lightweight, composite materials.

Meanwhile, EADS says that the A380 is the first long-haul aircraft to consume less than three litres of fuel per passenger over 100 km, a rate comparable to an economical family car.

 It claims that the A380’s efficiency and advanced technological innovations result in 15–20% lower seat-mile costs than those of competitor aircraft. Fuel-efficient engines and the use of advanced composite materials have played a vital role in reducing the A380’s operating costs.

The airframe is made up of some 25% composite material by weight, while the Airbus A350XWB, which entered production in 2010, utilizes around 50% composite material.

Economic measures lead to Technological innovation

Economic measures are causing technological innovation to grow by provide incentives for the industry to reduce emissions through buying more efficient aircraft, funding research and development, and emissions trading.

While it is no surprise that more and more growing aeronautical innovations are inspired by birds, designers are looking at a greater array of natural structures, organs and materials - and these tried and tested patterns of the natural world will continue to be a powerful source of inspiration for the future.


The surface of a lotus leaf has evolved to keep it clean and dry by causing rainwater to roll off and take any dirt with it.

Known as the "lotus effect", these properties have inspired coatings for cabin fittings, which shed water in beads, taking contaminants with them. This improves hygiene and reduces the amount of water needed.

This in turn reduces the weight of the aircraft and, therefore, the amount of fuel burn and carbon emissions. This innovation is already used on the surfaces of Airbus cabin bathrooms today and in the future will be found on the fabric of seats and carpets. There are even plans to use the lotus technique on the outside of the aircraft.

'Groovy' shark skin

Just as the shark swims effortlessly through the water so soon will aeroplanes fly through the sky. Scientists have found the skin of a shark is covered by microscopic grooves that actually reduce their drag through the water, therefore allowing the shark to conserve energy as they search for food.

 For over thirty years this 'groovy skin' concept has been investigated and tested by aerospace engineers and is eventually being adapted and applied to the construction of aircraft. Just as a shark can minimize the energy it expends in motion, these microscopic grooves can help to reduce the fuel burnt by a jet aircraft.

Butterfly Wings

Butterflies have long been a symbol of transformation so it is fitting that their wings are a focus of aircraft engineers. While they are some of the most beautiful and delicate creatures on the planet, their wings are fantastically intricate mechanisms, designed to achieve optimum efficiency in flight.

Researchers are looking to harness the butterfly’s ability to twist and turn wings in flight. The possibility of using small movable surfaces and active internal structural components as part of an aircraft wing to mimic the way micro-capillaries in a butterfly's wing make for more efficient flight in the future.   

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