Airbus has developed a scale model aircraft of Albatross One, which features the world’s first in-flight flapping wing-tips, while the Bird of Prey has wing and tail structures that mimic those of an eagle. Samuel Ballard reports

Albatross One

Albatross One, which is based on the Airbus A321, has hinged wings to help reduce drag and weight. The design allows the wing-tips to move – rather than remain static – during turbulence, thus reducing drag and lessening fuel consumption.

Following the model’s successful test flight, the prototype will be scaled up further. “While hinged wing-tips are not new – military jets employ them to allow greater storage capacity on aircraft carriers – the Airbus demonstrator is the first aircraft to trial in-flight, freely-flapping wing-tips to relieve the effects of wind gusts and turbulence,” explained Airbus engineer Tom Wilson, based in Filton, north Bristol, UK.

“We drew inspiration from nature – the albatross marine bird locks its wings at the shoulder for long-distance soaring but unlocks them when wind-gusts occur or manoeuvering is required.

“The AlbatrossOne model will explore the benefits of unlockable, freely-flapping wing-tips – accounting for a up to a third of the length of the wing – to react autonomously during in-flight turbulence and lessen the load on the wing at its base, so reducing the need for heavily reinforced wing boxes.”

Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus’ executive vice-president of engineering, said the project showed “how nature can inspire us”.

He added: “When there is a wind gust or turbulence, the wing of a conventional aircraft transmits huge loads to the fuselage, so the base of the wing must be heavily strengthened, adding weight to the aircraft.

“Allowing the wing-tips to react and flex to gusts reduces the loads and allows us to make lighter and longer wings – the longer the wing, the less drag it creates up to an optimum, so there are potentially more fuel efficiencies to exploit.”

The first test flights of the Albatross One demonstrator, developed by Airbus engineers in Filton, were concluded in February after a 20-month development programme. “The next step is to conduct further tests to combine the two modes, allowing the wing-tips to unlock during flight and to examine the transition,” he added.

Bird of Prey

Airbus’s Bird of Prey concept plane is a hybrid-electric, turbo-propeller aircraft for regional flights. The company says it is inspired by the “efficient mechanics of a bird”. It has wing and tail structures that mimic those of a bird of prey, while individually controlled feathers provide “active flight control”.

It also features a blended wing-to-fuselage joint that mirrors the graceful and aerodynamic arch of an eagle or falcon, representing the potential of biomimicry (the design and production of materials, structures and systems inspired by nature).

Martin Aston, senior manager at Airbus, says: “One of the priorities for the entire industry is how to make aviation more sustainable – making flying cleaner, greener and quieter than ever before. 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.”


Last month, Air France-KLM announced that it was partnering with Delft University of Technology to create a prototype plane called the Flying-V, which would use 20 per cent less fuel than the Airbus A350 (the most advanced aircraft in the world). Global aviation accounts for 2.5 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

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