Airbus, UCT to study birds


Airbus, the world’s top aircraft manufacturer, is partnering with the University of Cape Town (UCT) to study the potential benefits and impact of formation flying and explore if this could be applied to passenger services to reduce fuel burn.

“Large birds benefit from co-operative flying to save energy, giving them increased range,” says Professor Christiaan Redelinghuys, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, which is undertaking the two-part study. “When they fly in formation, the leading bird’s wings generate trailing vortices of air – just as fixed wing aircraft do. But the birds following behind get a free lift from these vortices, which means they use less energy to fly. If we could safely harness those benefits, we could reduce the aviation industry’s consumption of fossil fuels,” he added.
“The first element of the work at UCT focuses on the effects of atmospheric turbulence on fuel saving while the second part will look at the impact of turbulence on the comfort and ergonomics for passengers, pilots and cabin crew,” outlined Dale King, Senior Manager for Research and Technology Partnerships at Airbus in a media statement.
“Grouping together aircraft flying similar routes, for example from Europe to Africa, could in theory provide a reduction in fuel burn and emissions, but we have to take into account all other operational factors. We are delighted to be working with UCT to investigate this further,” added King.

UCT and Airbus are adopting a biomimicry approach in this exploration of formation flight. Natures lessons have the potential to yield enormous benefits, especially in helping to minimise mankind’s environmental impact. As part of this overall project, Airbus is also supporting studies at Stanford and Bristol Universities.

Airbus’ partnership with UCT is the latest in a string of South African Research & Technology projects being sponsored by the aircraft manufacturer. In 2006 Airbus, together with South Africa’s Dept of Trade & Industry’s National Aerospace Centre of Excellence and the Dept of Science & Technology, launched a collaborative programme to identify and co-fund a range of studies into new materials and methods which had potential applications in the aerospace and air transport sectors. Other South African partners in the programme include the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Stellenbosch University, and the University of the Witwatersrand.

Airbus is also calling for African students to participate in biennial Fly Your Ideas contest. Students worldwide are challenged to develop new ideas for a greener aviation industry. Entrants stand to win over R300,000 (€30,000). Details on the competition, including entry forms, are available at:, the statement added.

Pic: An artists’ impression of Airbus’ future concept plane flying in formation.