How Sharks Could Save Airlines Millions of Dollars a Year

Jun 14, 2017

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Sharks are one of nature’s most fascinating creatures. Sitting atop the oceanic food chain, they seemingly glide through the water effortlessly. Their bodies and scales are so efficient that they’ve recently been studied by aircraft manufacturers with the hopes of improving plane designs.

At the ZAL Center of Applied Aeronautical Research in Hamburg, Airbus partnered with Lufthansa Technik, the maintenance business of Lufthansa Airlines. The two companies worked together to develop a way to have robots apply a texture modeled from sharkskin to the exterior of aircraft.

Photo by Michael Lindner, courtesy of Hamburg Aviation
Photo by Michael Lindner, courtesy of Hamburg Aviation.

The sharkskin texture was found to reduce airflow resistance (drag), thereby decreasing fuel consumption. The applied texture reduced drag by 1%. That may not seem like a lot, but Lufthansa said it would save 55 million euros for its fleet alone, along with reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 200,000 tonnes annually. Now consider how environmentally beneficial it would be if every aircraft had this texture.

Sharkskin has a texture called dermal denticles, meaning the scales have a tooth-like shape. The denticles create what’s called a leading edge low pressure zone, which reduces drag, kind of like the reason golf balls have all of those little dimples.

With the “FAMOS” method, the wing surface is embossed with a special paint, developed by Airbus and suppliers, and then cured with UV light. “FAMOS” is an acronym for a German product name meaning “Guidance System for Automated Application of Multifunctional Surface Structures.”

Lufthansa began working on this project in 2011, first using it on two of its Airbus A340 aircraft. The partnership benefits both Lufthansa Technik and Airbus, in terms of both the robotic technology and the fuel savings for aircraft. Sharkskin technology has also been used in swimsuits for competitive swimmers, notably in the 2008 Summer Olympics, where several athletes set Olympic and World Records. One particular Speedo suit ended up being banned for the advantages it gave to swimmers.

Featured image by Dave J Hogan / Getty Images

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