Researchers from the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) and NASA say that the device allows pilots to fly in the vortex created by neighbouring planes where there is less wind resistance, producing a cut fuel consumption of 20%. Dubbed the ‘formation flight instrumentation system’, the shoe-box-sized gadget containing a global positioning system (GPS) and an inertial measurement unit (IMU) measures the relative position, speed and attitude of each plane in the formation, even predicting each plane’s future position. The engineers say that the system – which was originally developed for unmanned solar-powered aircraft – has been found to be accurate to five centimetres and 0.2 degrees. A wireless communication system also allows planes to share information during flight.

According to Walton Williamson, one of the researchers, the device could save some companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. “Overnight package delivery services like Fed Ex could save approximately $250,000 to $500,000per year for each plane,” he said. Interest has already been shown by Boeing, says Williamson, with the organisation working on a similar device using the research team’s technology.

There are also other novel ways in which the airline industry could benefit from this device, says UCLA. Air traffic controllers, who often have large numbers of planes circling airports in limited air space whilst waiting to land, could use the technology to ‘park’ planes in formation, saving fuel.

Three tests of the device are planned, using two F18 fighter jets from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre at Edward’s Air Force Base, a UCLA spokesman told edie. However, the first, set for 20 July had to be aborted at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances.

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