31 May 2017 16:49 IST

Aviation’s next big idea — circular runways

These will make take-offs and landing safer, and increase airports’ capacity

Imagine a runway where four aircraft land or take-off simultaneously without posing a risk. It would be an godsend for operators and airlines straining under severe capacity crunch in airports world over. That’s the aim of Henk Hesselink, Senior R&D Manager at Netherlands Aerospace Centre. His only condition? The runway has to be circular.

Hesselink is leading a project called The Endless Runway, which since it was unveiled in March has divided aviation experts on its efficacy. The fundamental principle of the project, which is a collaboration between research centres in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Poland, is that aircraft take-off and land on a large circular structure.

“This helps aircraft to overcome strong wind conditions in which landing or take-off can be dangerous,” Hesselink told BusinessLine over a telephone chat from Amsterdam. In October last year, video had gone viral of a Boeing aircraft nearly crashing while landing in Prague while battling crosswinds. Circular runways may also be the answer to an infrastructure crunch at airports, including in India. Hesselink explains: “The circle’s diameter is 3.5 km and the length of the runway is 10 km, similar to the length of three conventional runways. But an airport with an Endless Runway will have the same capacity as an airport with four runways.” Airport buildings can be built in the middle of the circle, reducing the size of the airport. The runway, with a width of 140 metres, is banked. This will make the airspace less noisy and also prevent the crosswinds.

The concept of circular runways was first tested in 1964, when the US Navy used a 8,400-foot-wide banked track. Though the trials were successful, the runways never took off. But now, says Hesselink, aided by technology a circular runway is feasible.

At present, the concept of the airport and a design of the airport are ready. Hesselink, and his team of 14 aviation experts, performed simulations based on flight simulators and air traffic control simulator.

The next phase of the project is to use tracks for trials. “At least two sites in Europe are interested,” says Hesselink without revealing the names as talks are still on.

But it’s expensive. An airport with a circular runway will cost about 1.5 times the conventional one. “Cost is an issue. We need to explore a business model with benefits higher than the costs,” says Hesselink. For instance, circular runway will drastically reduce the waiting period for an aircraft, thus enabling an airport to service more flights and passengers a day, resulting in higher revenues. As revolutionary as it may sound, the endless, circular runway might become a reality only by 2050.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)