Weather data and 3D printing to cut emissions

New systems to allow planes to more accurately respond to wind speeds, so saving fuel and emissions, are being tested by Easyjet.

Currently, conventional forecasts narrow weather data down to six-hour windows, but the airline is improving on this by feeding pilots more up-to-date information as they fly, bringing data accurate to within an hour. It hopes the development will permit pilots to adjust air speed at all altitudes, taking into account head or tail winds and so more accurately control fuel burn. Trials are underway with three companies and the airline's head of the project, Nicola Martino, said it would "probably take another few months before we decide which company it will be."

Dynamic wind data is normally collated from meteorological forecasts gathered on the ground and from weather balloons, but it can now be mixed with reports from aircraft that are in the air to give a more accurate picture. This data will be fed directly to on-board computer systems and pilots can then request another altitude or routing that avoids strong head winds, or adjust height and routing to pick up tail winds.

"Normally you only have six hours' prediction, with the new technology this reduces to 60 minutes," said Martino, the airline's flight operations manager in Italy. Headded that on a "bad day", fuel wastage could be "as much as 20%", but admitted he was "not expecting massive savings". However, Martino believes the system might possibly remove the need for aircraft diversions when strong headwinds prompt excessive fuel burn.

Long term, the new technology is expected to pay for itself as even a one or two percentage point saving is of great benefit to airlines.

Meanwhile, aerospace component firm Safran is partnering with Easyjet to produce weight-saving aircraft components using 3D printing techniques. Safran includes the engine manufacturer Snecma in its portfolio and plans to produce components using this so-called 'disruptive technology', which unlike traditional machining does not involve dozens of separate pieces. Instead, a laser cutter 'prints' the component using powdered nickel alloy, producing a single entity in one process.

Safran's vice president of manufacturing Thierry Thomas, said this would have a dramatic effect on aircraft weight, which, in turn, saves fuel.

"Today, you start with a big block of nickel and drill the holes. You no longer need big thick blocks. Typically, (with 3D printing) we can save 30-75% of the weight and when we're talking about titanium parts, you can also see the cost saving."

Thomas said the technique was "not just about the engine, it's also things like the landing gear." Longer term, he said there were no limits. "How much of the aircraft can you make? I can imagine doing everything by 3D printing, there's no good reason why not."

Structural testing of components produced with the technique is currently underway, using a measure of five times their lifespan. "Within the next two years, we will see components on planes," Thomas predicted.

It is already planned to incorporate the technology on the new generation LEAP engines that will power Easyjet's future Airbus A320neo fleet that will be delivered from 2017. Fuel nozzles and carbon fan blades are among parts that will be manufactured using 3D printing.

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