Interview

“Don’t worry,
it isn’t a rollercoaster”

Henk Hesselink, an engineer and project director for the Netherlands Aerospace Center, has a vision: in the future, drones and passenger planes will take off and land on a circular runway. It’s possible in theory—but in reality, it raises a number of issues.

Text Jörg Riedle

 

Mr. Hesselink, so many aspects of aviation have evolved over time: planes, biometric security checks, logistics. Only the airplanes take off and land as they always have. Why is that?

If I only knew. Probably because we’ve always done it like that and it’s worked just fine. Aside from which, all of flying’s infrastructure, all the piloting experience is geared for perfectly straight runways.

 

Yet you still want to introduce circular runways?

Our project was supported by the European Commission and had one goal: to highlight new ways of air transport. We’ve been optimizing the capacities of runways for takeoffs and landings for decades now. At some point the pace began to slow and then there was nothing left to optimize. We need new solutions to meet the increasing demands of the future.

 

But why can’t the current runways be further developed?

Sometime only a radical change leads to progress. We carried out simulations with our circular runways for takeoffs and landings using a very busy day at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. We had no problem dealing with the current volumes. Four planes can take off and land simultaneously. The distances are shorter as well; in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, there’s a runway that is eight kilometers away from a gate. It takes time before you can even take off. The paths from the gate to takeoff are much shorter with a circular runway—our simulation airport had a diameter of just three and a half kilometers. The timing for takeoffs and landings can be increased with a circular shap.

 

Photo: The Endless Runway

 

Yet more takeoffs and landings mean more pollution in the environment.

Not necessarily. With the round shape, airplanes will no longer have to circle an airport to approach the runway, as is often the case today. They can approach from any direction, saving time in the air and fuel. That’s good for the environment. Furthermore, the circular variation is safer—dangerous crosswinds can be avoided because, with a circular form, there are always two approach corridors where the crosswinds aren’t blowing.

 

That actually sounds good for pilots.

It’s already been tested, fifty years ago in the U.S. The pilots said that the first landing took some getting used to, but by the second or third try, it was no problem. Today this approach is again being tested in various simulators. The landing is basically comparable to the tradition approach: you fly straight ahead and then the pilot turns onto the curve just before the landing. The acting G-forces match those of a curve on the autobahn or on a train—they’re manageable.

 

Despite the theoretical benefits, other experts claim a circular airport isn’t feasible in practice.

The airline industry is very strict. You can’t just change something overnight. Everything must understandably be tested. And everything is currently geared to straight runways. Circular takeoff and landing runways would have to be built from scratch, since there isn’t any sort of infrastructure for it. This in turn would naturally come with enormous costs.

 

So nothing will change?

I’m very convinced by the circular runway, that’s clear. Perhaps when the concept’s advantages have been proven and accepted, at some point in the distant future circular runways will be built and the straight versions will disappear. But I don’t see any change coming in the near future. The financial investment required would simply be too huge. Aside from which, many airports don’t have any capacity problems and/or dangerous crosswinds. So they don’t need any circular runways.

Meaning your vision will remain unfulfilled?

Not necessarily. We’re currently looking for investors to develop the operability of an alternative area of application: circular runways for transport drones. We see that drones are becoming increasingly important and that they can also serve commercial purposes. We’re focusing on drones that can transport cargo containers weighing a hundred kilos.

 

Why do transport drones need their own airport?

Because the traffic will increase and require its own infrastructure. Existing airports can possibly handle a small portion of it. But if the amount increases, which can be expected, the limits will quickly be reached. Just take a look at online retail, an area also expanding very rapidly.

 

And that means infrastructure on demand?

When we order something, we usually want it immediately. But sometimes products aren’t available in the closer distribution centers. For this fast-delivery (buy today–receive today) service, drones could transport these products between various locations and distribution centers. The idea is to build infrastructure near industrial areas that can be flown into and out of. 

 

What sort of infrastructure are we talking about here
It won’t be an airport in the traditional sense of the word. We don’t need a management building, check-in counters and the like. The entire thing wouldn’t have a diameter of much more than 400 meters. We need the circular runway, transport routes and a loading and unloading area. From there, for example, smaller drones could take over the delivery.

Plans for a testing area in Valkenburg near The Hague in the Netherlands are being developed right now.  
It’s an old, decommissioned airport. But they’re redeveloping the place, with plans for a large research center that will include the use of drones. So why not work on setting up the infrastructure there? But right now we’re still in the planning phase.

So the prospect of this actually being used is still far off in the future?
A lot of work is required. In a few years, we’ll be able to conduct real tests. Then it will take a few more years before this type of infrastructure could be rolled out on a large scale. So, within the next ten years there won’t be any huge breakthrough in this field. In the aviation industry, things sometimes just take a bit longer.