Startups might not be able to convince the FAA to try out a new, fuel-saving way to guide planes to their landings at airports around the country, but what about General Electric?. On Thursday, American Airlines flight 1916 flew from Texas to Connecticut and landed using GE Aviation technology largely based on the work of startup Naverus, which GE acquired in November. If it works, it could lead to big fuel savings for the airline industry, GE says.
So-called Required Navigation Performance (RNP) technology allows planes to track tighter routes and gliding, fuel-saving descents through the skies around airports, as compared to the step-wise, descend and level-off flight patterns now used by air traffic controllers around the country (to see the difference, check out this cool animation from GE). Older air traffic control systems can’t handle these continuous flight paths, which means much of the new technology must be embedded in the planes, with the Federal Aviation Administration’s full cooperation on the ground as well, of course.
Naverus, founded by former Alaska Airline pilots Hal Andersen and Steve Fulton, developed the RNP tech used in Thursday’s flight, and has been using it in Australia, Canada, Peru and China, as well. A project at Brisbane, Australia’s airport showed that allowing planes to glide into landings and shorten their flight paths saved 5 to 15 percent of total flight fuel burn, Fulton said in a Thursday interview. About 600 airports around the U.S. are Brisbane’s size or smaller, he noted, and GE Aviation is working on making RNP accessible to the country’s bigger airports as well.
The FAA’s Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) program is aimed at bringing technology like this to airports around the country. While AA 1916 was the first FAA-approved flight using the RNP system, GE obviously plans to make it standard for NextGen, which could cost around $6 billion to $7 billion in upgrades for the federal government and airlines, Fulton said. GE Aviation plans to announce more projects with the FAA, possibly as early as this year, he added.
GE Aviation is also using RNP in a European project called AIRE (Atlantic-Interoperability Initiative to Reduce Emissions) to prove the technology’s fuel-saving potential and corresponding greenhouse gas emissions impact. (Airlines account for about 2 percent of global CO2 emissions.) Beyond fuel savings, using more accurate and efficient flight paths is meant to improve safety and avoid air traffic snarls that lead to flight delays and rerouting, Fulton noted.
GE has named aviation as one of the focus industries for its Ecomagination green tech line, which plans to spend $2 billion per year through 2015 on R&D. While airlines have so far placed their biggest green technology bets on the biofuel industry, Thursday’s flight is a reminder that green IT can play an important role in making air travel more eco-friendly as well.
For more research on green IT, check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required): Green IT Overview, Q2 2010