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‘AWIATOR’ – better wing technology to boost aerodynamics

This EU-funded project’s innovative technologies, including mini-flaps, vortex reducers and gust detectors, promise the arrival of lighter ‘intelligent’ aircraft that can respond instantly to changes in wind velocity and other unpredictable flying conditions.

‘AWIATOR’ – better wing technology to boost aerodynamics

AWIATOR’s raison d’etre is to integrate advanced technologies into novel fixed-wing configurations with two goals in mind: to create lighter, but stronger, wings and to reduce as much as possible the hazardous ‘wake vortex’, or maelstrom of air, that trails behind an aeroplane and can disrupt the flight of other aircraft.

Vortex economics

Not only do wake vortices pose a safety hazard when aeroplanes fly too closely behind one another, but the strict separation rules imposed by the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) have a direct economic impact, as the relatively long distances they require between aircraft limits the number of take-offs and landings during peak traffic hours.

“Given that most trends point to ever-increasing growth in commercial air traffic, it's clear that the wake vortex carries an economic cost to the sector,” says Rolf Henke, AWIATOR’s project coordinator at Airbus Deutschland. “If we want to confront the capacity problem afflicting all the big airports across Europe, we have to deal with vortices,” he said.

Still a mystery : vortex physics

Minimising the forceful but invisible whoosh of air that trails out from behind an airplane is still a major challenge to the aviation industry, despite years of research into its physics. “We still don’t understand everything about how a vortex is propagated. Most of the time it moves downward beyond the tail, but sometimes it goes up,” Henke explains. “Our challenge is to better predict what it will do in a given situation.” And then to better control it. AWIATOR’s researchers aim to manipulate a vortex to remove or weaken its punch by forcing it to decay more rapidly or by diffusing its energy over a bigger radius. Either way, this could allow aircraft to fly in closer proximity to one another, thus hiking the capacity of Europe’s skies.

‘Flapping’ flights: the intelligent way to wing it

Even more intriguing is AWIATOR’s other main goal: to reduce the weight of an aircraft’s wings by making them respond more organically to the wind conditions around them. This requires combining innovative software with some sophisticated new wing-mounted technologies.

One of the project’s innovations is a ‘gust sensor’, a device mounted on a wing’s leading edge to detect pressure pockets and wind shear – the invisible upward or downward ‘wall of wind’ that creates bumpy flights. To eliminate the bumps, the gust sensor transmits information instantly to the wings’ conventional flaps and several new trailing-edge control devices that act like ‘mini-flaps’ to increase the aircraft’s stability. In effect, each wing will be able to respond discretely to the forces exerted on it, as a bird’s wing does to the air currents around it.

“We’re talking about pretty small control devices, just a few centimetres wide, and perhaps only four or five per wing,” says Henke. “But they offer a very effective way to change the aerodynamics of the trailing edge and thus counter the effects of gusts.”

More safety, more efficiency

Though a nice side-effect of the mini-flaps is a smoother ride for passengers, the more important benefit is improved safety and efficiency. Explains Henke: “By using the mini-flaps in combination with other existing devices, we hope to demonstrate that the wings of tomorrow won’t need today’s level of strength because you can instantly redistribute the load on them.”

In other words, by redistributing the load on a wing, it doesn’t need to be as heavy, rigid or strong as today. “That means a thinner skin and thinner ribs supporting the wings. Result: a lighter, safer and more fuel-efficient aircraft.”