“Around half the drag a plane experiences is the result of skin friction, so anything that reduces that will deliver big savings in fuel use,” he said, adding that the research team was still not entirely clear how the phenomenon worked, but that early test results from wind tunnels had been encouraging.
Lockerby explained that the innovation is based on the Helmholtz resonance principle – the same principle that applies to blowing over a bottletop whereby air is forced into a cavity increasing the pressure and forcing air out of the space, creating an oscillation.
By perforating a plane’s wing with tiny holes with chambers underneath, the research team believes an additional layer of air can be created around the wing that limits drag.
Simon Crook, senior manager for aerospace and defence at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which co-funded the research aviation giant Airbus, said that the breakthrough could help “drastically reduce the environmental cost of flying”.
The team is now working on prototypes designed to get a better understanding of the process and ensure that the perforations can be added without compromising the structural integrity of the aircraft.
Airbus is said to be keen to accelerate the project and it is hoped that new wings could be ready for trial as early as 2012.
EPSRC said that if tests prove successful the technology could also be used to improve the fuel efficiency of cars, boats and trains.