Lonely Planet Writer

It’s all in the wings - see how engineers are imagining the planes of the future

Could this futuristic plane make travel cheaper and better for the environment?


A group of scientists have put together a picture of what aircraft could end up looking like in the decades to come. Super-long wings, wings that ‘morph’ shape during flight, along with special futuristic construction materials could all be part of the airline travel of tomorrow. As the research team’s YouTube video explains, flying has actually become a lot cheaper, safer, faster, and indeed greener over the past sixty years. Modern aircraft use 80% less fuel per mile travelled than the first jets built back in the 1950s.

An engineer shows off a design for the future.
An engineer shows off a design for the future. Image by Screengrab from YouTube

However, emissions from the air miles we do clock up are a massive issue and with air traffic set to double in the next twenty years, it’s a problem that’s not going to disappear. That is why a team of researchers have been busy modelling new improved wing designs that would give us more efficient aircraft. Using incredibly powerful supercomputers, they’ve been coming up with new wing types that could help cut emissions by up to 10%, and in turn help make air travel cheaper.

Wings could morph shape during flight.
Wings could morph shape during flight. Image by Screengrab from YouTube

Morphing wings that change shape during a flight is one idea they’ve explored. Wings with spans far longer than we are used to could also help cut emissions and are going to be tested at a NASA research centre later this year. Specially-built wings using advanced composite construction materials could reduce the structural weight of an aircraft by as much as 10% … and so reduce the amount of fuel needed.

One of the research team, Professor Joaquim Martins, explained: “any difference you can make in fuel burn, even a fraction of a percent, makes a big difference in the world. Our goals are two-fold: to make air transportation more economically feasible and at the same time to reduce the impact on the environment.”

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