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IPFS News Link • Transportation: Air Travel

Unpowered cargo gliders on tow ropes promise 65% cheaper air freight

•, By Loz Blain

The idea certainly isn't a new one – payload-carrying gliders were towed toward combat zones in World War 2, full of troops and/or equipment, then released to attempt unpowered landings in the thick of things – with widely variable results, particularly where stone-walled farms were a factor.

More recently, the US Air Mobility Command tried flying one C-17 Globemaster III some 3-6,000 ft (900-1800m) back from another, "surfing" the vortices left in the lead plane's wake – much like ducks flying in formation – and found there were double-digit fuel savings to be gained.

But Texas startup Aerolane says the savings will be much more substantial with purpose-built autonomous cargo gliders connected to the lead plane with a simple tow rope. With no propulsion systems, you save all the weight of engines, motors, fuel or batteries. There'll be no cabin for a pilot, just space for cargo and the autonomous flight control systems that'll run them.

These "Aerocarts" will be pulled down the runway by the lead plane just like a recreational glider. They'll lift off more or less together with the lead plane, then stay on the rope throughout the cruise phase of flight, autonomously surfing the lead plane's wake for minimal drag and optimal lift. And they'll either land right behind the lead plane, rope still attached, or eventually possibly be released at an ideal spot so they can make their own descent, potentially landing at an entirely different airstrip than the lead plane.

The latter would require some regulatory wrangling, but otherwise, according to Bloomberg, Aerolane believes it shouldn't be treated much differently by the FAA than regular ol' recreational gliders. It remains to be seen how the FAA will feel about this.