Could a "flying piano" help transform air cargo?

 US start-up Aerolane is exploring the secrets of airsurfing.

Geese already know how to do it: flying in V-formation, they ride the air currents created by the flight mates ahead and around them.

At an airfield in Texas, Todd Graetz wants to shake up the air cargo market with this concept.

Aerolane imitates the migratory birds' tricks using a modified aircraft that is towed into the air by another aircraft.

Smoke emitted by the aircraft ahead allowed a camera mounted on the tow plane to record air vortices that the glider could use to stay airborne.

Their latest test aircraft is known as the "Flying Piano" because of its poor gliding characteristics.

The aircraft glides with its propellers spinning for purely aerodynamic reasons, while its two engines idle to generate electricity.

Other tests measured the tension on the tow line.

They noticed when the line went slack. This indicated that the glider was surfing the current created by the aircraft ahead.

Aerolane plans to feed all this data into a program and take advantage of the ability of unmanned cargo aircraft to navigate through wake turbulence and turbulent air and glide long distances without burning fuel.

Such a cargo aircraft could be towed to its destination by a jet also carrying cargo, and land autonomously.

The only fuel cost would come from supplying the tow plane's engines.

In theory, this would work like a truck towing a trailer, with the air flow playing a lot of the role. Graetz calls this "a combination of gliding and surfing."

Airbus had the same idea and tested the technology in 2021 with two A350 aircraft, flying a distance of 3 km over the Atlantic Ocean.

The aircraft were not connected by a tow line, but one aircraft participating in the experiment benefited from the lift of the lead A350, reducing CO2 emissions and fuel consumption.

Airbus Airbus A350 flying behind the contrail of another jet in a blue sky Airbus

Graetz, a pilot with 12 years of experience, co-founded Aerolane with Gar Kimchi, a veteran of Amazon's drone delivery project. "There must be a better way to get more out of our existing aircraft,"

The project caused consternation among experienced pilots. Flying large gliders in commercial airspace means that strict aviation safety regulations must be adhered to.

For example, the tow plane must ensure that it can release the tow line at any time during the flight with confidence that the self-controlled glider will be able to reach the runway without falling on locals.

Aerolane says that a small electric motor driving the propeller will act as a safety net for the cargo glider, giving it enough energy to turn around or redirect it to another nearby location if it fails to land.

Aerolane Artist's impression of a cargo glider with a chunky fuselage and thin wings Aerolane

Aerolane hopes that such a glider will one day be able to carry air cargo.

Graetz counters that Aerolane employs active commercial pilots who are calmly looking at the practical aspects of the project.

He says that the big shipping companies are interested in anything that can reduce their cost per delivery.

In addition to fuel costs, air cargo companies must also consider engine emissions and pilot shortages.

Former Royal Air Force helicopter pilot and aviation consultant James Earle believes Graetz is on to something.

"It's clear that there are advantages to be gained from slipstreams and collaboration in the air.

But he warns that public acceptance of unpowered cargo flights over urban areas is another matter entirely.

"In the event of a serious tow plane accident, the aircraft needs to have sufficient glide distance to reach the landing site. But whether this can be communicated effectively to the public is another matter."

Fred Lopez Fred Lopez in civilian clothes stands in front of a fighter jet. Fred Lopez

Fred Lopez was initially skeptical of Aerolane's prospects.

Regulators are also likely to be cautious, especially in the United States, where the Federal Aviation Administration has come under pressure following serious problems with Boeing aircraft.

Graetz responded that his team has complied with all the FAA's requirements so far. "The FAA has always been extremely risk averse. This is their business!"

Fred Lopez worked in airline operations for cargo giant UPS for 36 years. As he says, he has dedicated "his whole adult life" to finding the most cost-effective way to run the air cargo business.

Lopez admits that he was very skeptical about cargo gliders when he was first approached by Aerolane. But he was convinced by the prospects for significant fuel savings and now serves on the advisory committee.

Reducing fuel costs is a top priority in commercial aviation. Once upturned wingtips visible from cabin windows became a standard design feature, airlines cut fuel costs by about 5%. But

gliders only use as much fuel as a tow plane would require. Even if it were a freighter, a pair of gliders towed by a jet plane would mean significantly less fuel burn for large cargo.

Aerolane's original design uses what Lopez calls a human "safety pilot" in addition to an autopilot, which should make FAA approval easier.

"Aerolane isn't trying to change everything at once," he says.

Their ultimate goal is autonomous operation using artificial intelligence, or, in Lopez's words, "taking the pilot out of the seat."

And if flying pianos can surf, who knows what might be possible?

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