Public Release: 

Rising fuel costs: UCLA engineers turn to Nature to solve human problem

University of California - Los Angeles

UCLA engineers are turning to nature to help solve a very human problem: the rising costs of fuel for air travel.

Researchers at The Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have designed an instrument that makes it easier for pilots to fly multiple aircraft in a V-formation - much like a flock of Canada geese - and they're going to test the new device on two F-18 fighter jets this month.

The engineers and their partners at NASA claim that by flying planes in formation, fuel consumption can be reduced by 20 percent. The device that UCLA is testing provides important data that makes maintaining such a formation easier and safer.

Dubbed a "formation flight instrumentation system," this shoe-box-sized gadget measures the relative position, velocity and attitude of each plane while it's flown in formation.

According to Professor Jason Speyer, lead investigator for this project at UCLA, the goal is to "fly planes in formation in order to save fuel," which could save some companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

The advantages of formation flight have long been known. By flying in a V-shaped formation, each pilot can save energy by "hiding" behind the wing of a neighboring plane where there is less wind resistance, or drag. This area of lower resistance is called the vortex.

However, finding and remaining in the vortex can be a potentially dangerous distraction for pilots. Veer a little too much one way or the other and a pilot could crash into the neighboring plane or spin out of formation. Pilots have many other things to concentrate on - like flying the plane - and a computer can "take away the danger and the tedium of remaining in the vortex by making it the computer's responsibility," says Walton Williamson, one of Speyer's research partners.

Each plane is fitted with a small box containing a global positioning system (GPS) and an inertial measurement unit (IMU). The GPS reveals the plane's position and velocity relative to the Earth every few seconds. The IMU, which measures rate of acceleration and rate of rotation, can estimate position, velocity and attitude between GPS readings. A wireless communication system allows the two planes to share information during flight.

Speyer's instrumentation system "blends" the readings from the GPS circuit and the IMU to calculate not only where the plane is at any particular time, but also the plane's future position - all with enough time to correct any potential problems and keep the planes in formation.

On July 20, two F-18s from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edward's Air Force Base will fly with the instrumentation on board. The purpose of the flight is to test the accuracy of the device and determine if it can safely be used during flight. Earlier tests, using a powerful GPS simulator in a UCLA lab and while aboard a solo F-18 flight, have shown the device to be accurate to within 5 centimeters when measuring relative position and .2 degrees when measuring attitude during pitch and roll.

At the end of the test, the research team hopes to have a reliable, accurate and proven system that can be used for future formation flying. If all goes well, the next step will be to use the instrumentation to send commands directly to another device that will hold the plane in formation.

In fact, Walton says Boeing is creating the other device using UCLA's instrumentation. This separate piece of hardware will allow planes to fly and stay in the center of the vortex - a basketball-sized "sweet spot" where there is the least resistance.

While they are currently examining military applications, Speyer's group believes it is the cargo plane industry that will benefit the most. "Overnight package delivery services like Fed Ex could save approximately $250,000 to $500,000 per year for each plane," says Williamson.

There are other novel ways that the airline industry could benefit. Air traffic controllers who struggle to manage large numbers of planes within limited air space could use this technology to maximize the space that they do have by "parking" planes in formation, almost wingtip to wingtip, saving on fuel while they wait to land.

The UCLA engineering team has spent years working on this instrumentation, which was originally designed for use on solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Earlier tests involved strapping a GPS and an IMU on the roof of Williamson's car and driving through Westwood. This July, UCLA's instrumentation will be put to the test on something decidedly more sophisticated.


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