Institution of Mechanical Engineers urges UK aerospace to consider ambitious futuristic tecnologies
The IMechE has produced a report saying UK aerospace should be considering seemingly
improbable options, like pilot-free planes, solar powered flight, planes flying
at x5 the speed of sound, and a system by which individual units can be released
and float down to the designated area where the passenger needs to go … and
flying pigs …. The UK is currently the second biggest aerospace manufacturer
in the world but is being challenged by emerging economies.
25 October 2011
Last updated at 18:30
Researchers say formation flying could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25%
Investment in new aeroplane technologies is the key to the UK maintaining its
status as an aerospace leader, according to a report.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) said the country’s research and development spending has “flat-lined” since
the 2008 financial crisis.
It said that made the UK’s position vulnerable to China, India and Brazil.
It urged the creation of a research centre to test ideas such as pilot-free planes
and solar-powered flight.
“The UK aerospace sector already employs over 100,000 people around the country
and is worth over £29bn a year to our economy, but we need to take action now
to ensure this sector can continue to thrive and grow,” said Stephen Tetlow, chief
executive of IMechE.
He said the UK was currently the second biggest aerospace manufacturer in the
However, it is being challenged by emerging economies, which are offering firms
competitive R&D opportunities to boost their market share, as well as the
promise of cheaper labour.
IMechE’s Aero 2075 report made three recommendations to secure the UK’s lead.
IMechE’s concept design for a double decker blended wing aircraft, capable of
carrying 650 passengers
- Industry and government should agree a strategic vision for investing in the
UK’s aerospace sector
- The UK should establish an advanced technologies aerospace research centre
- Government should restore R&D support to pre-recession levels
If the suggestions were to be followed, the institution suggested there could
be a range of UK-designed innovations in the skies over the next 50 years.
It said these could include formation flying, where a group of aircraft cruise in a V-shaped
formation to reduce drag and boost fuel efficiency.
IMechE said there were opportunities to explore generating power mid-flight from renewable
sources, such as solar and hydrogen fuel cells. However, it warned batteries would
have to become lighter.
It noted that the UK was already involved in the production of unmanned aerial
vehicles for the military. It said the research could be extended to develop pilot-less freighter aircraft, even if passengers resisted the idea.
Perhaps its most radical idea was the suggestion that a large “mothership” aircraft
could carry smaller individual units, which would be released over designated
areas, allowing passengers to be dropped off closer to their final destinations.
“These technologies may seem fanciful, but there is engineering research that
shows that these technologies are feasible,” said Philippa Oldham, head of transport
“These aircraft would be expensive but it’s important to remember that these
developments bring jobs and investment back into the UK.”
Jets ‘should copy birds to save energy’
Passenger jets should fly in V-shaped formations like flocks of birds to save
energy, experts have suggested.
Planes could travel at five times the speed of sound by the second half of this
century, according to the report.
In an idea called ”a sort of Ark Royal for the skies”, a system could deliver individual plane passengers at or near their front door.
But action is needed now if the UK is to be at the forefront of future aerospace
innovation, the report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) said.
Even in the next 20 years, there were potential sales of 25,000 new aircraft
set to be worth more than £2,000 billion, said the report.
Looking towards 2075 and beyond, the report talked of:
:: ”Scramjet” planes able to fly at around five times the speed of sound (around
:: Commercial aircraft flying in a V-shaped formation to save power by taking
advantage of the airflow generated by the plane in front;
:: The ”aircraft carrier” system in which a large aircraft carries individual
units that can be released over a destination and float down to the designated
area where the passenger needs to go;
:: A ”flying wing” design, where the plane’s fuselage, wings and engine are
:: A ”flying fuel station” so future planes do not have to take off with full
IME chief executive Stephen Tetlow said: ”Now is the time for industry and Government
to focus on sectors that can help lift the country’s economy.
”The UK aerospace sector already employs over 100,000 people around the country
and is worth over £29 billion a year to our economy, but we need to take action
now to ensure this sector can continue to thrive and grow.
”There is great potential for new UK aerospace technologies, but in order to
compete with emerging nations, we need to set up a strategic vision for UK aerospace,
establish a new dedicated aerospace research body and restore research and development
funding to pre-recession levels.”
Comments from AirportWatch members:
I think the business of flying in a vee formation has more to do with seeing
what the other pilots are doing than with shedding drag.
IAre you sure they did not copy this out of a copy of “The Eagle”? Did the author
have funny wavy eyebrows and an green arch-enemy who floated on a saucer?
Some of these might be technically feasible, but not within a commercially realistic
or environmentally sensible budget. Does drag not go up as the 4th power of velocity?
Surely that implies rather a lot of fuel would be needed?
I am sure the IMechE would love for all the money to be spent researching these
things, but does it really expect them to happen? As Ryanair repairs its planes
with gaffer tape – do you really want to get ejected at Mach5 from one of O’Leary’s
I love the notion of an “individual passenger unit” ringing the bell and asking
to be set down (escape capsule? parachute?) at the next stop. A bit of a slipstream
at Mach 5 though ………