Flying high with innovative
aircraft concepts


Turning the dream of cleaner, quieter, cheaper aircraft into a reality is the goal of the NACRE (‘New Aircraft Concepts Research’) project. The project’s early results suggest that the aircraft of the future could look very different to the planes flying overhead today.

In a bid to boost quality, reduce costs and improve the environmental performance of aircraft, the project team is giving aircraft design – from the overall shape of the plane to its individual components – a radical overhaul.

An industry under pressure

The aeronautics industry is a key player in the EU’s economy, accounting for around 2.5 per cent of GDP and generating over three million jobs. Maintaining the industry’s competitiveness in the face of global competition will require new aircraft concepts like those being developed by NACRE.


Global air traffic is predicted to double over the next 10 to 15 years and triple in 20 years’ time. Yet even as passenger numbers are set to grow, the industry is facing growing pressure to reduce its impact on the environment while keeping the costs of air travel down. According to figures from the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), air traffic is responsible for around 2 % of global greenhouse gas emissions, and this is expected to grow by 3 % to 4 % per year in the future.

Aeroplanes also release nitrogen oxides (NOx), which breaks down to produce ozone in the atmosphere. Another problem associated with planes is noise pollution.

In response to demands to improve its environmental performance, the European aviation industry has voluntarily agreed to cut CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions from aircraft by 50 % and NOx emissions by 80 % by 2020. External noise emissions should be cut by half. These goals, which were proposed by the Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe (ACARE), were taken on by the NACRE project partners. Other ACARE goals taken on by NACRE include green aircraft design, manufacturing and maintenance.

The project, which is coordinated by Airbus, brings together partners from universities, research organisations and industry, including many major airline manufacturers, from 12 EU Member States plus Russia.

Radically rethinking aircraft design

For the past 50 years, aircraft designers have achieved significant gains in fuel efficiency and, by extension, environmental performance. However, if further improvements are to be made, entirely new aircraft concepts will need to be developed, and that is where the NACRE project comes in.

Their aim is not to focus on one specific type of aircraft, but rather to develop generic solutions at component level with a view to ensuring that the results can be applied to a wide range of new aircraft. For each of the major aircraft components (cabin, wing, propulsion system, fuselage), the researchers are investigating aspects such as aerodynamics, materials, structure, engines and systems, to see how they would affect the quality, affordability and environmental performance of air transport.

The project partners are working with three specific aircraft concepts in mind. The ‘Pro Green’ aircraft concept places an emphasis on reducing the environmental impact of air travel, while the ‘Payload Driven Aircraft’ concept aims to optimise payload and the quality of the aircraft for its end users. Finally, the ‘Simple Flying Bus’ concept is devoted to lowering both manufacturing costs and the costs of ownership.

Creating something ‘very different from conventional aircraft’

In their quest for better aeroplanes, the NACRE team was not afraid to meddle with the shape of the aircraft. They have developed a ‘Flying Wing’ aeroplane, in which the entire aircraft is shaped like a giant wing.

The project partners have maximised the use of the inside of the aircraft to create a comfortable space for passengers. Experiments have proven that it is possible to evacuate passengers from such an aircraft within the time set by safety regulations.

The flying wing format significantly reduces drag, and the partners are busy refining the shape of the wing further so that air flows over it as smoothly as possible. Reducing drag slashes fuel consumption, and so benefits the environment and passengers’ wallets.

Turning ideas into reality

The project team cannot predict when developments made in the framework of NACRE will be ready for application; many of the technologies involve highly unconventional configurations, and so are more suited to the next generation of aircraft than the aircraft of today.

Nevertheless, many of the project partners are aircraft manufacturers, and they are keen to maximise the achievements of the project they have invested in. With this in mind, the project coordinator predicts that while the new aeroplanes coming online in the next few years will probably not feature NACRE-derived components, they may well feature on the aircraft coming after that.

Meanwhile a lot more research is needed before these technologies can be used commercially. The NACRE project partners are already launching new projects to carry out this research and move these exciting new technologies forward.

Meanwhile technologies which are closer to application could be taken up by the Clean Sky Joint Technology Initiative (JTI). The JTI is an industry-led, public-private initiative which brings together public funding agencies including the European Commission and the private sector. Many of the NACRE partners are also actively involved in Clean Sky, making them ideally placed to bring the NACRE results to the wider aeronautics research community.