NASA, Google award $1.35M prize for ultra-cool, mega-efficient electric aircraft

NASA, Google prize recognizes Pipistrel-USA.com aircraft that can fly 200 miles at 100 mph on less than a gallon of fuel

pipistrel taurus
NASA today awarded what it called the largest prize in aviation history to a company that flew their aircraft 200 miles in less than two hours on less than one gallon of fuel or electric equivalent.

Their aircraft is the Taurus G4 by Pipistrel-USA.com. The twin fuselage motor glider features a 145 kW electric motor, lithium-ion batteries, and retractable landing gear. The team, using another Pipistrel aircraft has won NASA aircraft challenges before -- the Personal Air Vehicle Challenge in 2007 and the General Aviation Technology Challenge in 2008.

Fourteen teams originally registered for the CAFE (Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation) Green Flight Challenge competition. Three teams successfully met all requirements and competed in the skies over the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, Calif., this past weekend  CAFÉ manages the competition for NASA. The second place prize of $120,000 went to team eGenius, which is backed by European aircraft conglomerate Airbus.

Two years ago the thought of flying 200 miles at 100 mph in an electric aircraft was pure science fiction," said Jack Langelaan, team leader of Team Pipistrel-USA.com in a statement. "Now, we are all looking forward to the future of electric aviation."

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According to CAFÉ, to win the Green Flight Challenge, an aircraft must exceed an equivalent fuel efficiency of 200 passenger miles per gallon (mpge). Typical general-aviation aircraft have fuel efficiencies in the range of 5-50 mpge.  Large passenger aircraft are in the 50-100 mpge range, depending on passenger/cargo load. Green Flight Challenge aircraft also must have an average speed of at least 100 mph over a 200-mile race circuit; achieve a takeoff distance of less than 2,000 feet to clear a 50-foot obstacle; and deliver a decibel rating of less than 78 dBA at full-power takeoff, as recorded from 250 feet away.

It is hoped by NASA and Google that the technologies demonstrated by the CAFE Green Flight Challenge, sponsored by Google, competitors may end up in general aviation aircraft, spawning new jobs and new industries for the 21st century.  

NASA noted that there is great evidence such aviation awards can change history.  From a NASA white paper on the topic:  "Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 in 1919 to the first successful non-stop flight from New York, New York to Paris, France or vice versa. The Orteig Prize was won by Charles Linbergh in 1927 with the Spirit of St. Louis. Henry Kremer established the Kremer Prizes in 1959. He offered $100,000 for the first prize competition which was for the first human-powered aircraft to fly one mile. The prize was won by Paul McCready in 1977 with the Gossamer Condor flown by Bryan Allen.1 Other notable prizes are the $250,000 Sikorsky human powered helicopter prize, $2 Million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge: Urban Challenge, $2 Million DARPA UAV Prize, $10 Million Ansari X-Prize, $60,000 Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Electric Flight Prize, and the NASA Centennial Aviation Challenges. NASA's first challenge was the $250,000 Personal Air Vehicle Challenge in 2007. Four competitors participated and $250,000 was awarded. It was followed by the $350,000 General Aviation Challenge in 2008 which only awarded $97,000 to its three participants.

The Orteig Prize changed the public's expectations of flying. Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic created the expectation that anyone could fly. Three major impacts were observed: in 1927, U.S. pilot license applicants increased by 300% and the number of U.S. licensed aircraft increased by 400%; and there were 30 times the number of U.S. airline passengers in 1929 as there were in 1926. The new technologies and innovations from the Kremer prize led to new niche markets. Efficiently using power from batteries contributed to the development of the electric powered car and solar powered aircraft. The lightweight soaring capability contributed to high altitude projects such as the NASA Pathfinder aircraft.  Air races like the Schneider Trophy in the 1920s and 1930s pushed airplane and airplane engine performance. New liquid cooled engines were introduced to provide more powerful engines. The airframes were clean and efficient. These races accelerated aircraft speeds from 150 mph to 400 mph in 13 years."

The CAFE Green Flight Challenge is one of NASA's Centennial Challenges, a program of prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration,  the agency said. In the past it has held such challenges to build lunar landers, personal aircraft and astronaut gloves. 

In 2010 NASA significantly expanded its Centennial Challenges program to include $5 million worth of new competitions.  Those challenges included:

  • The Sample Return Robot Challenge is to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from wide and varied terrain without human control. This challenge has a prize purse of $1.5 million. The objectives are to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies.
  • The Nano-Satellite Launch Challenge is to place a small satellite into Earth orbit, twice in one week, with a prize of $2 million. The goals of this challenge are to stimulate innovations in low-cost launch technology and encourage creation of commercial nano-satellite delivery services.
  • The Night Rover Challenge is to demonstrate a solar-powered exploration vehicle that can operate in darkness using its own stored energy. The prize purse is $1.5 million. The objective is to stimulate innovations in energy storage technologies of value in extreme space environments, such as the surface of the moon, or for electric vehicles and renewable energy systems on Earth.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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