Researchers at Boeing have been working on a host of new environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient technologies to complete the holy grail of the airline industry — planes with a reduced carbon footprint that use less fuel. This week Boeing took the important step of taking the cutting-edge experiments out of the lab and into the air.
The aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 on loan from American Airlines, is dubbed the "ecoDemonstrator." Carrying no passengers, the plane flew over Montana to test the impact of several projects.
Some of the changes were "tweaks" to the body of the aircraft itself. One test involved installing "adaptive trailing edges," which are small flap-like devices towards the end of the wings that change the shape of the wings to make them more aerodynamic depending upon where the plane is during its flight. The more aerodynamic the plane is, the less fuel is burned.
Another change was variable area fan nozzles, which allow the exhaust area of the engine casing to be optimized for different flight conditions, which in addition to improving engine efficiency (again lowering fuel consumption) also makes the plane less noisy.
Inside the plane, engineers were testing regenerative fuel cells that could one day power the electrical systems of the aircraft with clean hydrogen and oxygen instead of relying on the engines to supply power.
Separately, Boeing and the FAA are partnering to work on flight trajectory optimization so that aircraft can fly more precise routes — another fuel saving measure. They're also working to install iPad-type devices on flight decks to receive real-time satellite weather, ensuring a safer and more efficient flight.
With fuel costs amounting to a sizable chunk of an airline's operating costs — which then translates into higher ticket prices — clearly all aspects of the airline industry recognize these experiments are critical to business.
While most of the experiments on the ecoDemonstrator may not be ready for implementation for years to come, the project gives the Boeing staff the chance to test, collect data and refine the forward thinking technologies.
The plane is on a 40-day loan from American Airlines and after exhaustive testing, it will be reconfigured back to its original state and will rejoin the operating fleet. Plans are to perform the same type of testing on wide-body aircraft next year.
To hear engineers talk about the project, check out the video below.