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Activity title

Formation Flying for Efficient Operations

Activity Reference



Applied Vehicle Technology

Security Classification




Activity type


Start date


End date



Efficiency, Flight Control, Manoeuvre, Performance


Operational Efficiency is a strong requirement for enhanced maintainability and survivability of current and future manned and unmanned military vehicles / systems. A recognized way to save fuel for flights of two or more aircraft is by flying them in formations whereby trailing vehicles harvest energy from the wakes of the vehicles ahead of them. The first in-flight demonstration in 1990 by Beukenberg & Hummel of TU Braunschweig, and subsequent flight explorations by NASA and the USAF in 2002, showed efficiency benefits of 10% or more. The tests were manually-flown formations at close nose-to-tail separations. Workload and precision ¬-considerations pointed to the need for an automatic system for operational use, particularly on long-duration missions. Recent tests by Boeing and AFRL with two C-17 aircraft, using a completely automated system, demonstrated a 10% fuel burn reduction during a representative mission. These flights showed no adverse effects on the engines, airframe or crew. In addition to transport aircraft, formation drag reduction has applications to swarms of UAVs and UCAVs, fighter-tanker groups and even supersonic flight regimes. This activity will address the NATO 2015 S&T Priority “Power and Energy” Target of Emphasis P&E-4 on “Enhanced Energy Efficiency & Management”.


The objective of the Applied Vehicle Technology activity on Formation Flight for Efficient Operations is to facilitate the adoption of formation flight technology to significantly improve flight efficiency, reduce fuel burn, and extend range for multi-aircraft operations. Specifically, the objectives of Task Group are • Promote information sharing and collaboration between research efforts underway at participating nations. • Ensure interoperability between formation flight systems and associated procedures for military aircraft from different NATO countries. • Provide guidance and develop a framework to help direct current and future research into formation flight for efficient operations, while minimizing unnecessary duplication of effort and ensuring that critical areas of research are not left neglected. • Demonstrate the utility of using uncertainty-based simulation methods to bridge the gap between innovative formation flight technology and associated procedures, and a potential flight research activity • Advocate for a jointly-sponsored flight research activity by the end of the study period, to gather data on open questions that can only be answered through instrumented testing in a relevant environment.


The topics covered by the Task Group will be divided into three pillars, or focus areas, that categorize the technical, operational and policy challenges to formation flight for energy efficiency. In each area, the Group will survey the current state of the art, identify work that remains to be done, and propose future research efforts to address them. The scope of the study will cover unique aspects of the challenges as they relate to transports, fighters, and unmanned aerial vehicles

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