KLM has shared details of the future vision AHEAD (Advanced Hybrid Engine Aircraft Development) blended wing aircraft, which promises to free passengers in our future cities from the confines of the traditional plane they’ve known for generations.

AHEAD is a collaborative project of TU Delft University in the Netherlands, with support from the European Commission and in collaboration with Airbus Group Innovations, engine manufacturers MTU Aero Engine, and WSK Reszov, EASA, and KLM.

The AHEAD project introduces a blended wing long-range aircraft design, with capacity in the range of 300 to 350 passengers, which, employing a new hybrid engine, could also usher in a cleaner era of aviation.

Tomorrow’s Aircraft for Tomorrow’s Cities

Skift spoke with Dr. Rao of TUDelft University, to understand the benefits to passengers, airlines, and our cities of tomorrow of the AHEAD blended wing aircraft design.

He tells us that AHEAD fills a gap in the market for long-range aircraft that adjust to tomorrow’s more point-to-point long range routes, adapted to the traffic demand of tomorrow’s cities, predicted for 2050, especially as growth shifts to Asia.

The projected concentrations of people in key cities around the world, and the relationship between passenger demand and distance flown between those key cities, identify gaps in today’s aircraft mix which are addressed by AHEAD on long-haul routes.

The shape of the AHEAD blended aircraft has distinct passenger benefits too. “The oval fuselage offers more volume per passenger,” Dr. Rao tells us. “This can be used in a variety of ways to improve the passenger experience.”

Because of its flattened shape, the blended wing AHEAD aircraft would give designers plenty of room to get creative and make the space passenger friendly. This could include roomier seats, alternative cabin mixes, lounges, onboard shops.

We’ve already seen airlines adopt some of these features on large capacity aircraft, such as the A380, but a flattened cabin space would require the industry to completely rethink cabin layout, which has always been limited by the metrics of distribution within a sphere.

“We have not looked into this aspect within the project, however I believe that as we more further, we will have to give more attention to these aspects,” says Dr. Rao.

AHEAD aircraft EU Project/TUDelft University

AHEAD aircraft EU Project/TUDelft University

For now, the AHEAD design draft has focused on fuel storage and left seat illustrations in rows as markers, but a more rectangular cabin would mean reimagining how we build and configure bins, monuments, galleys, dividers, lavatories and even aircraft seats.

We asked Dr. Rao about designs tossed around which range from very futuristic havens in the sky to more dreaded compact cabins, but he tells us the truth is somewhere in the middle. “Both concepts are extremes,” he says. AHEAD is conceived to fill a gap somewhere in the middle. It might not result in playgrounds in the sky, but it is also unlikely to be too tightly packed, simply because the routes and demand it is designed to fill won’t require much denser cabins.

Earth Friendly, Ground Friendly, Airline Friendly

Operating on a combination of biofuel and cryogenic fuel (like LNGLH2) that is stored in the larger wing areas, this aircraft would satisfy the targets of the Advisory Committee for Research in Aeronautics (ACARE) to reduce CO2 emission by 75%, NOx emission by 90%, and perceived noise levels by 50% by 2050. These targets are compared to registered levels in 2000.

To fly with these fuel combinations, the AHEAD aircraft will introduce a new hybrid engine concept.

Besides its greener profile, the aircraft is ready for developing airports with minor modifications to infrastructure.

“The aircraft will not need any changes at the airport,” Dr. Rao tells us. “However if we use the cryogenic fuels, like LNG or liquid hydrogen, we have to change the fueling systems.”

Despite the squat shape, airlines won’t have difficulties fitting our luggage. Nor would they lose the benefit of fitting cargo in the hold for added revenue, and might fit cargo more efficiently onboard.

“At the moment the shape of the cargo containers, LD3 or LD6 are designed for a circular fuselage and that’s why they are shaped in a peculiar way,” says Dr. Rao. “I believe that with a Blended Wing Body—or Hybrid Wing Body—design, we will be able to use cubical or rectangular containers.”


A 2050 Plan

As Dr. Rao explains, such projects take time to reach the final stages of development, longer still to take flight.

“The project is at a TRL (Technology Readiness Level) of 1-2,” Dr. Rao explains. “We will have to take the concept to TRL 4-5 before Airbus will seriously consider this concept as their next product.”

Yet, he believes that a time frame in the next 40 years is realistic, and that there is a high probability we will see an aircraft very similar to AHEAD take flight by then.

Rob Duivis, who has been with KLM since 1975 working on Engine Services and maintenance projects, participated in the AHEAD project and wrote about it in the airline’s blog ‘Meanwhile at KLM’. He predicts a similar timeline for the project.

“The AHEAD design is a long-term study,” he says. “with many aspects yet to be researched. The timeframe for introduction of an aircraft of this type is expected to appear sometime around 2050. KLM is committed to staying involved in short- and long-term innovations in aviation.”

Duivis tells us KLM participated in this project for many reasons.

“This concept of an fuel efficient environmental friendly design fits perfectly in the strategy of the AF/KLM group of sustainability,” he says. “In addition, we consider this a very good opportunity to influence design aspects not only related to propulsion technology but also to aspects as aircraft and cabin layout. Another important aspect is that from an Engineering point of view we want to be maximum involved in innovation trends and maximize our influence where possible.”