Airbus’ new bird-plane hybrid is both fascinating and unsettling

Airbus unveiled a new concept airplane called “Bird of Prey,” which seems fitting because this thing seems designed to prey on your deepest fears. The bird-like conceptual airline design features multiple propellors, a rudder branded with the Union Jack, and something called “feathered wings” which I can’t seem to unsee.

The body of the plane is bronze-colored and looks more fish-like than anything else. The addition to the tendril-tipped wings, though, make it clear that Airbus’ designers had birds on the brain when they came up with this one.

Airbus unveiled the concept at the Royal International Air Tattoo air show in the UK. The French aerospace giant thankfully has no plans to build or manufacture this chimeric monstrosity, which is probably for the best.

More intriguing is the propulsion system undergirding this fantastical experiment. Using technology now under development, the Bird of Prey could provide a 30-50 percent reduction in fuel burn compared to equivalent aircraft today — a major leap in efficiency.

“One of the priorities for the entire industry is how to make aviation more sustainable – making flying cleaner, greener and quieter than ever before,” Martin Aston, a senior manager at Airbus, said in a statement. “We know from our work on the A350 XWB passenger jet that through biomimicry, nature has some of the best lessons we can learn about design. Who can’t help but be inspired by such a creation?”MAKING FLYING CLEANER, GREENER AND QUIETER THAN EVER BEFORE

Hey, if designing some weird bird-plane is what it takes to “inspire” the airline industry to ditch fossil fuels in favor of more clean-burning energy, I’m all for it. I’ll strap on a pair of Hawkman wings myself like I’m in a Terry Gilliam movie. But the adoption of hybrid and battery-powered propulsion systems in aviation is taking its sweet time because putting planes in the air is heavy stuff.

Flying requires an incredible amount of energy, and presently, batteries are too heavy and too expensive to achieve liftoff. Energy density — the amount of energy stored in a given system — is the key metric, and today’s batteries don’t contain enough energy to get most planes off the ground. To weigh it out: jet fuel gives us about 43 times more energy than a battery that’s just as heavy.

Airbus’ idea of biomimicry, which it defines as “the design and production of materials, structures and systems inspired by nature,” is certainly intriguing. And Airbus isn’t alone in thinking that airplane wings, traditionally thick and sturdy, could use an upgrade.

A team of NASA researchers are working on a new type of flexible wing that morphs as it flies. Measuring 14 feet or four meters wide, the new wing is constructed from thousands of 3D-printed reinforced polyetherimide units that fit together and function in a similar way to a bird’s wing.

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