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June 09, 2017

Engineers at Airbus and Lufthansa have come up with a clever way to make planes more earth-friendly, taking their inspiration from the depths of the ocean.

At Hamburg's ZAL Centre of Applied Aeronautical Research, the two aerospace giants developed a new “sharkskin” coating for aircraft wings which reduces airflow resistance. This means airlines will burn less fuel when flying you to the Maldives or the Bahamas, reducing their CO2 footprint.

Courtesy of Airbus

The “riblet” coating, which has a structure similar to the skin texture of sharks, may result in a savings of about $62 million in kerosene and 200,000 tonnes of CO2 each year, according to the companies.

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Applying this special coating involves a robotic squid developed with Germany's Bremer Work for Montagesysteme (bwm) in a project known by the acronym “FAMOS.” That stands for “Guidance System for Automated Application of Multifunctional Surface Structures” in German (even if it does sound a bit like Greek).

Courtesy of ZAL Technical Centre of Applied Aeronautical Research in Hamburg

Basically, the squid-like robot's arm can apply this specialised “sharkskin” coating to the large areas of wings evenly and quickly, ensuring quality and effectiveness. The surface of the wing is first embossed in the "riblet" structure with a special paint developed by Airbus and its suppliers, then cured to hardening with UV light. The FAMOS squidy can even clean and prep the aircraft wing prior to painting.

It’s not the first time Airbus turns to sealife to reduce airline fuel-burn. Both Boeing and Airbus have introduced extensions to aircraft wings which help reduce drag. Boeing calls theirs winglets. Airbus calls theirs sharklets. But they both get the job done.

The development of this new earth-friendly wing coating is timely. Despite recent U.S. policy changes on the Paris Climate Agreement, the airline industry is still committed to meeting its own environmental sustainability targets, as confirmed during the recent Annual General Meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Cancun

Airlines have committed to improving the fuel efficiency of their global fleet by an average of 1.5 percent each year through 2020. But they have actually exceeded those targets already, with an average fuel efficiency of 2.9 percent per year, according to IATA's Director of Aviation Environment.

Airlines also intend cut CO2 emissions by 2050 to 50 percent of what they were in 2005, and move towards earth-friendly alternative biofuels.

Sharks and squid can now lend an extra tentacle and fin to these lofty goals and help airlines keep the skies green.

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