Six Wild Ideas That May Be the Future of Aviation – Charles D’Alberto

NASA may have just discovered the future of air transportation in a Shark Tank-style pitch meeting with its current employees—or they may not have. It’s too soon to tell, but definitely not too soon to dream BIG. Regardless of the eventual outcome, during a day-long pitch meeting in April, 17 teams comprising current NASA employees shared their creative ideas with the space agency’s managers. From that crop, six teams and their corresponding concepts were selected for further research and development. Funded under NASA’s Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Project, the studies will run about two years, with the option of further funding/exploration once concluded.

The ideas—which include an electrically propelled airliner whose fuselage is the battery and an UAV programmed as a human pilot—had to answer one of NASA’s two strategic research goals for aeronautics:
Can we demonstrate an aviation system with maximum efficiency and minimal environmental impact? And can we demonstrate the feasibility for urgent medical transportation from the wilderness of Alaska to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota without human interaction?
In answering the second question, NASA is not trying to design a specific aircraft to fly from Alaska to Minnesota, but rather develop the technology behind such a mission. It is NASA’s assumption that these technologies would then find other practical applications across the globe.
“The idea of the project is this is an investment process, where we’re using almost venture capital-like principles. But instead of money, our return on investment is in knowledge and potential solutions to future challenges in aviation,” said Doug Rohn, NASA’s manager for the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program, in a press release.

Each NASA research team had to form on its own, include employees from a variety of technical disciplines, and have members from more than one of the company’s aeronautics centers in Virginia, California and Ohio. According to a NASA press release, here are their six winning ideas:

Multifunctional Structures with Energy Storage

A challenge with electric propulsion is the mass of the batteries that must be carried inside the aircraft. But what if the aircraft structure itself could serve as the battery? Advances in materials, chemistry and nanotechnology might make this possible.

Autonomy Operating System for UAVs

A concern about UAV’s is how their internal logic/software might respond to unforeseen situations— such as a sudden worsening of weather or another aircraft flying too close—that would prompt the need for a sudden change in its programmed course and behavior. The question is: can advances in programming and artificial intelligence make it possible for a UAV to respond to those situations on its own, without remote human interaction? And can a UAV do it in a way that is as sure and predictable as a certified human pilot?

Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerostructure Technologies

In recent years there have been advances in making and using composite materials in aircraft structures. There are also been advances in designing future aircraft that can adapt to changing flight conditions by, for example, changing the shape of their wings. The question is, what if those technologies could be combined so that super-strong, lightweight composite structures are also flexible and can change their shapes as needed during a flight?

High Voltage Hybrid Electric Propulsion

A challenge in implementing electric propulsion on airliners (where electricity drives the engine fan to produce thrust, rather than petroleum-based fuel being burned in a traditional jet engine) is how to make the whole power distribution system as efficient and lightweight as possible.

A potential solution may be found in advances in high-voltage, variable frequency drives now used on the ground, which significantly reduce the size and weight of the required equipment. At the same time, researchers will investigate the use of “self-healing” insulation in the power distribution system. The idea is that if any deterioration in a high-voltage electrical line begins, the resulting exposure of the electricity to chemicals bonded in the insulation would automatically repair the line—reducing in-flight problems and costly ground maintenance.

Learn to Fly

Historically, the process for designing, building, testing and certifying new aircraft for flight can take years and cost a lot of money. The question is, are we advanced enough in our understanding of flight and the use of computer tools where we can safely enable new airplane designs to be more rapidly flown by skipping ground-based testing?

Digital Twin

The question here is can a computer model be built that accurately simulates and predicts how an aircraft or its individual components are affected by aging and ongoing operations, such that a “digital twin” of a particular airplane can be created? This could help predict when problems might arise in an attempt to prevent them from developing in the first place.

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Posted By Charles D'Alberto

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