Source: Airbus rendering, 2011

Deploy the Anti-Goose Drones! And More From the Future of Flying

Ideas from five teams of students compete in an Airbus contest

What will those crazy kids think of next? Airbus persistently asks just that, soliciting students from around the world to submit ideas that can help make commercial air travel more efficient and sustainable someday. 

The contest, which is held every other year, attracts a mix of students from engineering, business, finance, and the arts. The 2013 winning idea, from a team at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, proposed a baggage system that would load and unload aircraft cargo holds more efficiently with an air cushion akin to the technology of an air hockey table.

Five teams are headed to Airbus’s engineering headquarters in Hamburg on Wednesday, each to be given 25 minutes to present its proposal before a jury of six experts in engineering and innovation, including two Airbus executives. The winning group will receive €30,000 (a little more than $33,000); the second-place team will get half that amount. The teams retain the legal rights to their ideas. 

The 2015 contest, Airbus’s fourth, involved 518 teams with 3,700 students from 104 countries before it was winnowed to the five finalists. They are:

Good Vibrations: Delft University of Technology, Netherlands

Airplane wings are dressed in a composite skin that harvests energy from natural vibrations or flex in the wings. Piezoelectric fibers gather electrical charges from the smallest movements during flight, storing the energy generated in battery panels integrated in the fuselage and using it to power auxiliary in-flight systems, such as lighting and entertainment. This reduces the plane's energy footprint and might even be able to replace the entire power source for ground operations.

Drones Are for the Birds: University of Tokyo, Japan

A flock of unmanned aerial vehicles (psst: drones) guides birds away from airports. The drones use tactics of separation, alignment, and cohesion to manipulate flocks and divert them to a nearby area called Birdport, where birdsong and decoys create a natural and safe habitat. This might have been useful to Captain Chesley Sullenberger in 2009, so he wouldn't have had to set his Airbus down in New York's Hudson River after it lost both engines after a gaggle of geese were sucked in. Can't count on a Sully in every cockpit.

After You: Northwestern Polytechnical University, China

This proposal applies motion-sensing technology from a gaming console to an aircraft guidance system for use when taxiing. The model uses infrared and visual information to warn the pilot and ground crew of high-risk obstacles. The aim is to reduce the turnaround time of aircraft between flights and the cost of damage and to save airlines millions of dollars a year. 

Trolley Trash: University of São Paulo, Brazil

The team’s trolley is designed to sort rubbish and recycling by compacting foils, paper, and plastic and draining off the residual fluid to reduce weight by up to 30 kilograms. That cuts fuel consumption and offers more galley space for refreshments. 

Brilliant Induction: City University London, UK

In-ground tarmac transmitters beneath the aircraft transfer electrical power inductively to a receiver placed between the nose wheels. This provides a sustainable energy source to power ground operations, reducing carbon emissions by half. This proposal is the first from an all-female team to reach the final round.

(Correction: An earlier version of this article said the UK finalist was the first all-female team to enter the contest. Also updates to clarify that the prize money can be used for any purpose.)

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