Could a ‘flying piano’ help transform air freight?

Could a ‘flying piano’ help transform air freight?
Comment on the photo, Aerolane’s experimental aircraft, dubbed the “flying piano,” glides on air currents.

  • author, Michael Dempsey
  • Role, Technology Reporter

American startup Aerolane is looking for the secret to skysurfing.

Geese really know how to do this. When you see them flying in a V formation, they are riding on the air currents created by the formation members in front of and around them.

At one airport in Texas, Todd Graetz hopes to use this concept to disrupt the air cargo market.

Aerolane mimics the tricks used by migratory birds, using modified aircraft towed through the air by another aircraft.

Smoke from the lead plane allowed cameras mounted on the downed plane to capture vortices in the air that the glider could exploit to stay aloft.

Their latest experimental aircraft is known as the “flying piano” because of its weak gliding characteristics.

Its dual motor is idle for electrical power as it glides alongside the propellers that spin for purely aerodynamic purposes.

Other tests measured the tension in the diameter line.

They discovered when the line slackened, indicating that the glider was gliding along the currents generated by the aircraft in front of it.

Aerolane’s plan is to feed all this data into software that steers a cargo drone through clear skies and turbulence to exploit the potential of long-distance flight without burning fuel.

The only fuel costs will come from the supply of engines for the tugboats.

In theory, this should work like a truck pulling a trailer, with the air currents doing most of the heavy lifting. It’s what Graetz calls “a combination of paragliding and windsurfing.”

The same idea occurred to Airbus, which tested the technology in 2021 with two A350s flying three kilometers (1.9 miles) across the Atlantic Ocean.

Although the aircraft was not connected by Qatar Airways, the trial saw one aircraft gain altitude off the heels of the leading A350 to reduce CO2 emissions and fuel burn.

Comment on the photo, Airbus has tested flying one plane behind another to save fuel.

Graetz, a pilot with 12 years of experience, founded Aerolane with Jure Kimchi, a veteran of Amazon’s drone delivery business, on the premise that “there has to be a better way to get more out of existing aircraft.”

The project has raised eyebrows among experienced pilots. Flying large gliders in commercial airspace means meeting strict aviation safety regulations.

For example, a towing aircraft must be confident that it can release the tow line at any point during the flight, knowing that the autonomous glider can reach the runway without falling on local residents.

Aerolane says a small electric motor driving the propeller will act as a safety net for their cargo gliders, giving them enough power to get going again if a landing goes wrong or to divert to another location nearby.

Comment on the photo, Aerolane hopes a glider like this will one day carry air cargo.

“We have engaged outside consultants to be devil’s advocates,” he adds.

He says major shipping companies are interested in anything that allows them to lower the cost of delivery.

In addition to fuel costs, air cargo companies also have to consider jet engine emissions and a pilot shortage.

James Earle, a former RAF helicopter pilot and aviation consultant, believes Mr Graetz may be on to something.

“It stands to reason that gains can be made by combining efforts and pooling them in the sky. Any innovation in shipping is a good thing.”

However, he cautions that public acceptance of unpowered cargo flights over built-up areas is another matter entirely.

“You need to have good range to get to the landing site in the event of a major malfunction of the tow aircraft. Whether that can be communicated effectively to the public is another question.

Comment on the photo, Fred Lopez was initially skeptical about Aerolane’s prospects.

Mr. Graetz responds that his team has complied with every FAA request to date. “The FAA has always been very risk averse. That’s their job!”

Fred Lopez spent 36 years in aviation operations at shipping giant UPS. As he says, he has devoted “my entire adult life” to finding the most cost-effective way to run an air freight business.

Mr Lopez admits he was very skeptical about cargo gliders when Aerolane first approached him. But the potential for significant fuel savings convinced him and he is now on their advisory board.

But gliders only use as much fuel as their towing aircraft needs. If this were also a cargo plane, a pair of gliders towed by a single aircraft would represent a significant reduction in fuel consumption on a large shipment.

The Aerolane’s initial design uses an autopilot in addition to what Mr. Lopez calls a human “safety pilot.” That should make FAA certification easier.

“Aerolane isn’t trying to change everything at once,” he says.

Their ultimate goal is autonomous operation using artificial intelligence, or as Lopez puts it, “pulling the pilot out of his seat.”

And if a flying piano can ride waves, who knows what’s possible?

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