Netherlands Will be the First to Build a Circular Runway for Commercial Jets and Drones

The engineer who suggested the idea of “circular runways” to the aviation sector now wants to use the same concept for drones.

In 2016, there were about 3.8 billion air passengers. Surprisingly, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates this number will nearly double (7.2 billion) by 2035.

Basically, this passenger demand means more flights that will add to the already existing pressure of airport congestion. To accommodate the rising flight demand, airports can’t just keep expanding their runway capacities forever.

But what about circular or “endless” runways? Believe it or not, this futuristic concept is being explored as a potential long-term solution to air traffic population.

If it works on a big scale, then it stands to reason that it will work on a small scale. Hence now circular runways being suggested as a way to handle fleets of delivery drones.

A Runway That Never Ends

Many aspects of air travel have drastically changed over the 20th century, from aircraft to robot guides to biometric identification. Airports, however, have remained pretty much the same.

Do airport runways should always be a straight line? According to European engineers, they don’t necessarily have to be.

Since 2012, the Aerospace Center of the Netherlands (NLR) has been working on the Endless Runway project, the brainchild of Dutch engineer Henk Hesselink.

The concept of circular runways could potentially increase the capacity of airports, dissipate noise pollution evenly, and put an end to the problem of headwinds.

Built as a 3km wide circle around a terminal, circular runways have no beginning or end. This would allow for a high volume of traffic as several takeoffs and landings could take place simultaneously.

In addition, pilots won’t have to navigate through crosswind no matter its direction.

Those aren’t the only benefits to the circular runway design. In fact, this project could help eliminate air traffic noise from certain parts of the surrounding area. Or, if the airport is surrounded by residential areas, the air traffic controllers could balance the amount of noise evenly. This would be accomplished by having aircraft approach the runway from a specified direction, as all 360 degrees of the approach are available.

The physics seem to agree as well. Due to the slight turn required to land on a circular runway, the centrifugal forces will cause the plane to naturally fly slower. What’s more, the plane will automatically be pulled toward the center of the circle. Hesselink says “Pilots and passengers will not feel like they are in a rollercoaster.”

According to Hesselink’s team, one circular runway can handle the traffic of 4 regular straight runways.

To execute the Endless Runway project, NLR has partnered with four other European research centers. These centers have homes in Germany, France, Poland, and Spain.

Circular Runways for Delivery Drones

Every year, drones are gaining in autonomy and versatility. In the coming years, delivery drones are poised to become commonplace. When that comes to be, would drones use the already constrained airports (and follow severe aviation guidelines), or will there be a need for new infrastructure?

This issue is even more challenging when it comes to the logistics of big drones.

We don’t know if Amazon, in its ongoing drone patents frenzy, has thought about this looming logistical problem.

While the concept of circular runways has proven to be divisive among experts in the aviation industry, Henk Hesselink is now suggesting using it for delivery drones.

According to the BBC, Hesselink wants to scale back his endless runway design for UAVs and has already taken a concrete step toward that goal.

In collaboration with Valkenburg airport in the Netherlands, Hesselink will build a circular test runway for drones in a site near The Hague out of a decommissioned naval base.

Such a design for a drone airport would make efficient use of space as “a 300kg unmanned aircraft would only require a runway diameter of 600m.” Hesselink is currently looking for financial backers to help him bring his idea to fruition.

Be sure to check out this BBC podcast to hear the latest update from Hesselink.

Do you see any issues with this new circular runway design? Or could it be the solution to the growing problem of congestion in modern aviation? 

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