Formation flying on a budget

Engineers at the University of California, Los Angeles, are turning to nature to help reduce the consumption of aviation fuel in aircraft by up to 20 per cent.

Researchers at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have designed an instrument that makes it easier for pilots to fly multiple aircraft in a V-formation. The new device will be tested on two F-18 fighter jets later this month.

The engineers and their partners at NASA claim that flying planes in formation could reduce fuel consumption by 20 percent. The device that UCLA is testing provides important data that makes maintaining such a formation easier and safer.

Dubbed a ‘formation flight instrumentation system,’ the instrument measures the relative position, velocity and attitude of each plane while it’s flown in formation.

The advantages of formation flight have long been known. By flying in a V-shaped formation, each pilot can save energy by ‘hiding’ behind the wing of a neighbouring plane where there is less wind resistance, or drag. This area of lower resistance is called the vortex.

However, finding and remaining in the vortex can be a potentially dangerous distraction for pilots: veer a too much one way or the other and a pilot could crash into the neighbouring plane or spin out of formation.

Each plane is fitted with a small box containing a global positioning system (GPS) and an inertial measurement unit (IMU).

The GPS reveals the plane’s position and velocity relative to the Earth every few seconds. The IMU, which measures rate of acceleration and rate of rotation, can estimate position, velocity and attitude between GPS readings. A wireless communication system allows the two planes to share information during flight.

Jason Speyer, lead investigator on the project, said the instrumentation system ‘blends’ the readings from the GPS circuit and the IMU to calculate not only where the plane is at any particular time, but also the plane’s future position. This would leave enough time to correct any potential problems and keep the planes in formation.

On July 20, two F-18s from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre will fly with the instrumentation on board.

Earlier tests have shown the device to be accurate to within 5 centimetres when measuring relative position and 0.2 degrees when measuring attitude during pitch and roll.

If the tests are successful the next step will be to use the instrumentation to send commands directly to another device that will hold the plane in formation.

While they are currently examining military applications, Speyer’s group believes it is the cargo plane industry that will benefit the most. ‘Overnight package delivery services like Fed Ex could save approximately $250,000 to $500,000 per year for each plane,’ said research partner Walton Williamson.

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