UK urged to research pilot-free planes

Design for ultra-efficient blended wing aircraft Researchers say formation flying could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25%

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Investment in new aeroplane technologies is the key to the UK maintaining its status as an aerospace leader, according to a report.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) said the country's research and development spending has "flat-lined" since the 2008 financial crisis.

It said that made the UK's position vulnerable to China, India and Brazil.

It urged the creation of a research centre to test ideas such as pilot-free planes and solar-powered flight.

"The UK aerospace sector already employs over 100,000 people around the country and is worth over £29bn a year to our economy, but we need to take action now to ensure this sector can continue to thrive and grow," said Stephen Tetlow, chief executive of IMechE.

He said the UK was currently the second biggest aerospace manufacturer in the world.

However, it is being challenged by emerging economies, which are offering firms competitive R&D opportunities to boost their market share, as well as the promise of cheaper labour.

Future tech

IMechE's Aero 2075 report made three recommendations to secure the UK's lead.

Design for a blended wing jet IMechE's concept design for a double decker blended wing aircraft, capable of carrying 650 passengers
  • Industry and government should agree a strategic vision for investing in the UK's aerospace sector
  • The UK should establish an advanced technologies aerospace research centre
  • Government should restore R&D support to pre-recession levels

If the suggestions were to be followed, the institution suggested there could be a range of UK-designed innovations in the skies over the next 50 years.

It said these could include formation flying, where a group of aircraft cruise in a V-shaped formation to reduce drag and boost fuel efficiency.

IMechE said there were opportunities to explore generating power mid-flight from renewable sources, such as solar and hydrogen fuel cells. However, it warned batteries would have to become lighter.

It noted that the UK was already involved in the production of unmanned aerial vehicles for the military. It said the research could be extended to develop pilot-less freighter aircraft, even if passengers resisted the idea.

Perhaps its most radical idea was the suggestion that a large "mothership" aircraft could carry smaller individual units, which would be released over designated areas, allowing passengers to be dropped off closer to their final destinations.

"These technologies may seem fanciful, but there is engineering research that shows that these technologies are feasible," said Philippa Oldham, head of transport at IMechE.

"These aircraft would be expensive but it's important to remember that these developments bring jobs and investment back into the UK."

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