The changing shapes of planes of the future

Planes have been roughly the same shape since the first scheduled commercial flights in the early 20th century: nose, wings, and fin. It’s working, so why change it? But that was until fuel costs changed, space for roomy runways reduced, and concerns about air-pollution grew...

Aeroplane designers have had their work cut out thinking about how to adapt commercial jets to respond to key concerns such as higher fuel costs and pollution. This could mean changing their iconic fat-bellied, blunt nose appearance and creating a more streamlined outer body. Here are some examples of the changing shapes of planes of the future.

The Sky Whale

Dubbed The Sky Whale, this plane has been designed by Oscar Vinals, and is so large it would dwarf even the Airbus A380.  Planes have grown larger and larger, but the Sky Whale, as its name suggests, would dominate the lot with capacity for 755 passengers and upstairs viewing platforms. 

With three decks for passengers, the plane wouldn’t look out of place in Star Wars. Experts have said that the design is not quite yet feasible, but all the engineering components are possible.

The concept plane promises to reduce engine fuel consumption, drag, and aircraft noise by an eighth. Runways won’t need to be longer: Vinals has designed engines that swivel which means they can take off with more power and won’t require a runway longer than 4000m.

Image from Virgin Atlantic

Carbon fibre planes

The heavier the plane, the more expensive it costs to run as more fuel is needed to propel it through the air. As fuel costs rise, designers need to consider how best to improve the efficiency of planes. This would involve the gradual transformation of aluminium planes to carbon fibre ones.

The newest planes on the market, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’ A350, both use carbon fibre composites (when carbon fibre matting is meshed with plastic). But could we soon see your short hop to Barcelona carried out on a lightweight, carbon fibre only aircraft?

One of the main differences when using carbon fibre to build planes is that the wing tips can actually extend vertically which means that efficiency is dramatically increased. It also means the shell is tougher, which means if anything were to ram it (like a very large bird) it wouldn’t leave a single dent.

Thanks to the use of moldable carbon fibre, it means that there is potential for planes to be shaped completely differently, thus ensuring greater efficiency. Which brings us nicely onto…

Exciting shaped planes

Nasa is leading the field when it comes to investigating new and exciting aircraft shapes. Their Subsonic Fixed Wing Program has a civil focus but will also benefit security and defence too.

Image from Nasa

According to Nasa documents, their aim is the “revolutionary transformation of the airspace, the vehicles that fly in it, and their operations, safety and environmental impact”.

The result of this is fixed wing planes like the 'Gen N+3 in house aeroplane designs'. The wings of these planes are spread over a greater surface area and the body of the plane is built into the wing – this is to make it more aerodynamic. The engines are turboelectric to minimise noise and make them greener. Other examples of different shaped planes being designed include the 'Flying Wing' by Northrop Grumman. Like Nasa’s, the cockpit and cargo is based in the wing itself.

Scientifically, planes shaped like UFOs or triangles manage to reduce drag on take off, which ultimately leads to better fuel efficiency and greener planes.

With sky overcrowding and fluctuating fuel prices, the planes of the future will need to at least adapt some of these cutting edge designs to stay green, lean, and competitive.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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