A team of researchers from West Virginia University are hoping aircraft can learn a thing or two from how birds fly.

Yu Gu and Marcello Napolitano from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering will be teaming with researchers from the University of Kansas to address ways in which traditional aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, can safely operate in the nation’s airspace.

“The research starts with a simple question: Why do birds fly in formation? The answer is because they can save energy and stay close together as a group,” Gu said. “The same benefits can be extended to aircraft.

“We haven’t seen this type of formation flying in commercial aircraft, however, because it’s difficult to do,” Gu added. “Trying to keep an aircraft in the ‘sweet spot’ of fuel savings behind another aircraft for an extended period of time is a labor-intensive and dangerous task for any pilot. It’s also not a pleasant experience for passengers because it would be a bumpy ride flying in the wake of another aircraft.”

The team will also investigate ways in which fuel consumption can be minimized.

“Fuel savings of up to 18 percent for the trailing aircraft was demonstrated by NASA’s Autonomous Formation Flight program,” Gu said. “When you consider that in 2013, the global airline industry spent $210 billion on fuel and produced 705 million tons of carbon dioxide, even a few percentage points of improvements in efficiency could create a great impact.”

Funded by Leading Edge Aeronautics Research for NASA, the researchers are developing new technologies to make formation flight safer, more efficient and less bumpy. More specifically, they are developing a cooperative method to estimate the 3D wind profile at the follower aircraft location, taking advantage of sensor measurements from both the leader and the follower aircraft.

“By doing this, the follower can dynamically follow the leader’s sweet spot and actively suppress the gust disturbances caused by the ambient wind and leader’s wake,” said Gu.

The team recently completed the first phase of the project, where they achieved autonomous close formation flight with a pair of small UAVs and were successfully sensing the wake of the leader aircraft. During Phase II, they will develop real-time cooperative gust sensing and suppression algorithms to be tested in flight.