While the world of commercial aviation is in deep crisis management mode, we should not forget about all the exciting technological advancements happening in the background. Much heralded last year as the aircraft wings of tomorrow, things have since been very quiet about Airbus’ semi-elastic wingtips, inspired by one of the world’s largest birds.
New concept announced a year ago
Almost exactly a year ago Airbus announced that its engineers had developed a new wing-concept that could reduce drag and counteract the effects of turbulence. The concept was demonstrated with what was named AlbatrossOne, a small scale, remote-controlled aircraft demonstrator with “semi-elastic” hinged wing-tips.
The idea was to mimic the aerodynamic qualities of the giant seabird after which it was named, and to produce the next generation, revolutionizing wing design. However, since then, there has been no news of the project whatsoever.
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Lessened load and increased fuel-efficiency
The freely flapping wingtips can react to and flex according to wind gusts. This means it significantly lessens load, which in turn would lead to a more fuel-efficient aircraft. And for those who do not enjoy being shaken and stirred in the sky, the good news is it also means less impact from turbulence.
It also reduces the weight of the wing, compared to conventional constructions. As the wing does not transport the same amount of load to the fuselage, it does not need to have heavily reinforced wing boxes.
Lock and unlock at will
The engineers looked to the bird with the widest wingspan in the world, the albatross, for inspiration when developing the new wing. The albatross can glide over great distances with wings that lock in at the bird’s shoulder to keep it soaring.
The locking function allows it to spend much of its time facing the wind and travel far with little effort. The wings then unlock as needed for propulsion, steering, or accommodating for turbulence. No other bird is able to use their wings in the same way.
The AlbatrossOne scale-model was based on the manufacturer’s A321 aircraft. It was made out of carbon-fiber and glass-fiber-reinforces polymers.
Quiet on further test flights
A few months after the first flight with the model, Airbus said that the next steps would be to conduct further test flights, combining the two flight modes. This would enable the wingtips to unlock during flight, and for engineers to examine and observe that transition. However, since then, things have remained quiet surrounding the new, potentially revolutionizing technology.
Does that mean that the nature-inspired ideas did not fully transition into operational standards and it was back to the drawing board for Airbus’ engineers? Or have the news simply been overshadowed by other, more pressing matters than R&D?
More winged innovation
The AlbatrossOne wing was the second revolutionary wing idea to come out of the Airbus’ innovation camp in the course of a year. In 2018, the manufacturer deployed a new wing design on a project called BLADE. And before the current crisis hit, there were plans to roll out the company’s new “morphing wing” designs, which, just like the hinged wingtips of the AlbatrossOne, are inspired by the aerodynamics of birds’ wings.
This reporter for one hopes there could be some development soon. Lighter wings and fuel-efficiency are of course all very well, but the prospect of experiencing less turbulence is indeed something to be excited about.