COLLABORATION

This university partnership is building the future of sustainable air travel

SOURCE: Edwin Wallet, Studio OSO/TU Delft
KLM and TU Delft are partnering to build the "Flying V", a V-shaped, fuel-saving passenger aircraft.

There’s no end to the doomsday warnings of climate change.

Every month or so (perhaps even weeks), a study is released detailing its many impacts and causes. Responsible for 2.4 percent of all human-induced CO2 emissions last year, aviation is often cited as a major culprit.

Although aviation is responsible for just 12 percent of emissions from all transport sources, compared to road transport’s 74 percent, it has been steadily increasing along with passenger growth. According to statistics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), aviation emissions have increased by 26 percent since 2013.

Fact is, travelling by air remains a popular transport mode and will remain so for a while yet. Commensurate with economic growth and rising incomes in emerging economies around the world, the trillion dollar sector will continue to expand, no matter how loud the cries against airline travel grow. 

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This year, some 4.6 billion people will take wing, up from 4.1 billion in 2017. By 2037, passenger numbers will double to 8.3 billion. Left unchecked, aviation emissions too will grow along with these numbers.

Fortunately, airlines around the world are now scrambling to overcome the polluter stigma. In January 2019, 192 countries embarked on a collective effort to monitor their CO2 emissions under the UN’s Corsia scheme. The aim of the scheme is to make all growth in international flights after 2020 “carbon neutral”, meaning any rise in emissions for international aviation are to be offset elsewhere.

From building better, more fuel-efficient jet engines to developing more intuitive planning systems and ramping up investments in R&D, even linking climate targets to executive salaries, many airlines have recognised the need to go green.

One recent headline-grabbing example is the development of the “Flying-V”, a V-shaped aircraft that creators claim will use 20 percent less fuel than the Airbus A350-900, the world’s most advanced aircraft, while ferrying the same number of passengers.

Flying V
The Flying V will use 20 percent less fuel than the Airbus A350-900, despite carrying the same number of passengers. Source: TU Delft

According to a recent announcement, Dutch national carrier KLM Royal Dutch Airlines will help fund its development, with estimates suggesting the plane will be in use some time between 2040 and 2050.

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In response to demands to improve the sustainability of air travel, the idea for the Flying-V was conceived for a thesis project by Justus Benad when he was a student at the Technical University of Berlin. It is currently being developed by researchers at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, also known as TU Delft.

Sleek and futuristic looking, the aircraft is designed is such a way that the passenger cabin, cargo hold and fuel tanks are integrated and built into the wing structure, creating the spectacular V-shape. The aerodynamic shape of the aircraft and reduced weight mean the vehicle will require less fuel for flights, allowing the estimated 20 percent savings in fuel cost.

The plane won’t be as long as the Airbus A350, although it will have the same wingspan, so it can use present infrastructure at airports around the world. It will carry the same number of passengers as the Airbus A350 – 314 in standard configuration – as well as the same amount of cargo, 160 m3. 

According to Dr. Roelof Vos, Project Leader at TU Delft: “The Flying-V is smaller than the A350 and has less inflow surface area compared to the available amount of volume. The result is less resistance. That means the Flying-V needs less fuel for the same distance.”

He told CNN that such innovation was necessary as a stepping stone towards greater efficiency in air travel, as the technology to build passenger electric planes advances.

“Aviation is contributing about 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, and the industry is still growing, so we really need to look at more sustainable airplanes,” he said.

“We cannot simply electrify the whole fleet, as electrified airplanes become way too heavy and you can’t fly people across the Atlantic on electric airplanes – not now, not in 30 years. So we have to come up with new technologies that reduce fuel burn in a different way.

“We’ve been flying these tube and wing airplanes for decades now, but it seems like the configuration is reaching a plateau in terms of energy efficiency,” he said.

“The new configuration that we propose realises some synergy between the fuselage and the wing. The fuselage actively contributes to the lift of the airplane, and creates less aerodynamic drag.”

Flying V
The plane won’t be as long as the Airbus A350, although it will have the same wingspan. Source: TU Delft.

Commenting on KLM’s decision to fund the project, the airline’s president and CEO Pieter Elbers said:

“The development of aviation has given the world a great deal, offering us an opportunity to connect people. This privilege is paired with a huge responsibility for our planet. KLM takes this very seriously and has therefore been investing in sustainability at different levels for many years, enabling it to develop a broad spectrum of sustainability initiatives.”

The airline cemented its partnership with the university in a signing ceremony last week, during the IATA Annual General Meeting in Seoul. With the tie-up, research and development of the Flying-V will receive the funding boost necessary for progress.

According to TU Delft, a flying scale model and a full-size section of the interior of the aircraft will be officially presented at the KLM Experience Days at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in October this year, on the occasion of KLM’s 100th anniversary.

“We are incredibly pleased to be able to cooperate with our trusted partner KLM on our combined mission to make aviation more sustainable,” Dean of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at TU Delft Professor Henri Werij said.

“Radically new and highly energy-efficient aircraft designs such as the Flying-V are important in this respect, as are new forms of propulsion. Our ultimate aim is one of emission-free flight. Our cooperation with KLM offers a tremendous opportunity to bring about real change.”