Start-Up Aerolane Aims to Revolutionize Air Cargo with Gliding Planes

Start-Up Aerolane Aims to Revolutionize Air Cargo with Gliding Planes

A U.S. start-up, Aerolane, is pioneering a new concept in air cargo inspired by the flight patterns of geese. Just as geese surf on air currents in a V-formation, Aerolane is developing technology to allow cargo planes to glide on air currents, reducing fuel consumption.w

At a Texas airfield, Todd Graetz, Aerolane's founder, has been experimenting with modified planes that are towed into the air by another aircraft. By releasing smoke from the leading plane, they can visualize and capture the air vortices that a glider can exploit to stay aloft. Their latest test aircraft, nicknamed the "flying piano" for its poor gliding abilities, uses its twin engines for electrical power while gliding, with propellers turning solely for aerodynamic purposes. They have also tested the tension in the towing line, finding moments when the line goes slack, indicating successful surfing on the air currents.

Aerolane's goal is to develop an unmanned cargo plane guided by software that navigates wakes and turbulence to glide long distances without burning fuel. This system would involve cargo planes towed by a jet to their destination, where they would land autonomously. The only fuel costs would come from the towing aircraft, analogous to a truck pulling a trailer with air currents providing much of the lift.

Airbus tested a similar concept in 2021 with two A350 airliners flying 3 kilometers apart across the Atlantic. One aircraft utilized the uplift from the lead A350’s wake to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel burn. Aerolane's approach builds on this idea, aiming to maximize the efficiency of existing aircraft.

However, flying large gliders in commercial airspace presents significant safety challenges. The towing aircraft must be able to release the tow line safely at any point, ensuring the auto-piloted glider can land without posing a risk to populated areas. Aerolane plans to equip their cargo gliders with a small electric motor as a safety measure, allowing them to go around again or divert to another location if necessary.

Despite skepticism from experienced pilots, Aerolane has garnered interest from major freight companies looking to cut costs and reduce emissions. Former aviation professionals, like James Earl and Fred Lopez, acknowledge the potential of this innovation, though they stress the importance of public and regulatory acceptance.

Aerolane is working closely with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to meet stringent safety regulations. With an advisory board that includes industry veterans like Lopez, who was initially skeptical but convinced by the potential fuel savings, Aerolane is cautiously advancing towards its goal of autonomous cargo gliders. Their current design incorporates a human "safety pilot" to facilitate FAA certification, with the ultimate aim of fully autonomous operation using AI.

If Aerolane's "flying piano" can successfully surf on air currents, it could revolutionize the cargo industry, significantly reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

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