Meet the students transforming flying

Aircraft of the future could be more energy efficient, thanks to a team of students from India who have developed technology that could harvest energy from the natural vibrations in a plane's wings.

Beating more than 500 other entrants in the fourth Airbus Fly Your Ideas competition, team Multifun – five students from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands – came up with an idea that utilises the energy already present in the wings during flight.

The team worked remotely from four different countries to develop their idea. In fact the first time they met face-to-face was the Airbus Fly Your Ideas final in Hamburg this week, where the jury panel of Airbus and industry experts, led by Charles Champion, Airbus executive vice president engineering, chose their concept as the most disruptive idea for the future of aviation.

In the system, which team Multifun came up with, the wings would be dressed in a composite that uses piezoelectric fibres to gather the electrical charges from even the smallest of movements during flight, storing the energy in battery panels. This energy could then be used to power inflight systems such as entertainment or lighting. 

As a result, the energy footprint of the aircraft would be reduced during flight and power for ground operations could be completely replaced to use this energy instead of leaving the engines running.

The runners-up, a group of students from the University of Sao Paulo, took a different approach and came up with a practical and simple to implement system that tackles waste reduction in flight and cuts down on the amount of time taken to collect and sort rubbish post-flight. This would speed up airline operations, especially for short haul carriers.

One of the other finalists, Team Birdport from the University of Tokyo, wanted to significantly reduce bird strikes to aircraft. They came up with an idea that would use a flock of drones to guide birds from airports to a nearby safe habitat. Using tactics of ‘separation, alignment and cohesion’ inspired by real birds, the drones would control the birds and divert them to the so-called Birdport, where birdsong and decoys would be used to create a natural habitat.

Team AFT-Burner-Reverser was inspired by games consoles to use infrared to guide planes when taxiing. Using motion-sensing technology, infrared and visual information, the system – designed by students from Northwestern Polytechnical University in China – warns the pilot and ground crew of high-risk obstacles. The system would reduce the turnaround time of aircraft between flights and the cost of damage, saving airlines millions per year.

The final project from the finalists came from City University London, where Team Bolleboos came up with a ‘Wego’ system that picks up energy during taxiing. 

Transmitter sections on the ground, located just under the aircraft in the tarmac would transfer electrical power to a receiver placed between the nose-wheels – giving the aircraft energy in a similar way to electric cars charging. This could provide a sustainable energy source to power ground operations and could reduce carbon emissions by half.

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