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WVU Researchers Study Ways to Fly Safely and Save Fuel By Simulating Bird Flight Formation

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Why do birds fly in formation?

"Because they can save energy and stay close together as a group," said Yu Gu, a member of a team of researchers from West Virginia University who plan to take this knowledge and apply it to aircrafts.

Gu and Marcello Napolitano from WVU's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering are teaming up with researchers from the University of Kansas to figure out ways in which traditional aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can safely operate in the air.

“We haven’t seen this type of formation flying in commercial aircraft, however, because it’s difficult to do,” Gu said. “Trying to keep an aircraft in the ‘sweet spot’ of fuel savings behind another aircraft for an extended period of time is a labor-intensive and dangerous task for any pilot. It’s also not a pleasant experience for passengers because it would be a bumpy ride flying in the wake of another aircraft.”

With funding from Leading Edge Aeronautics Research for NASA, the researchers are developing new technologies to make formation flight safer, more efficient and less bumpy.

The team will also investigate ways in which fuel consumption can be minimized.

“Fuel savings of up to 18 percent for the trailing aircraft was demonstrated by NASA’s Autonomous Formation Flight program,” Gu said. “When you consider that in 2013, the global airline industry spent $210 billion on fuel and produced 705 million tons of carbon dioxide, even a few percentage points of improvements in efficiency could create a great impact.”

The team recently completed the first phase of the project, in which they achieved autonomous close formation flight with a pair of small UAVs. During the second phase, they will develop real-time cooperative gust sensing and suppression algorithms to be tested in flight.