NASA: What cool future passenger aircraft will look like

Working with NASA, Boeing, Northrop, GE Aviation and MIT design futuristic aviation technology

Quieter, cleaner, and more fuel-efficient but not necessarily avante-guard in design would describe what NASA researchers have come up with in designing future passenger aircraft. 

NASA today said an 18-month study featuring teams of aircraft experts from Boeing, Northrop, GE Aviation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used all manner of advanced technologies from alloys, ceramic or fiber composites, carbon nanotube and fiber optic cabling to self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, folding wings, double fuselages and virtual reality windows to come up with a series of aircraft designs that could end up taking you on a business trip by about 2030. 

21 critical future NASA missions 

NASA highlighted the entries from all four teams.  Some of the observations from NASA's report are as follows: 

The GE Aviation team developed a 20-passenger aircraft that could reduce congestion at major metropolitan hubs by using community airports. The aircraft has an oval-shaped fuselage that seats four across in full-sized seats. Other features include an aircraft shape that smoothes the flow of air over all surfaces, and electricity-generating fuel cells to power advanced electrical systems. The aircraft's advanced turboprop engines sport low-noise propellers and further mitigate noise by providing thrust sufficient for short takeoffs and quick climbs. 

MIT double bubble
MIT's 180-passenger D8 "double bubble" strays farthest from the familiar, fusing two aircraft bodies together lengthwise and mounting three turbofan jet engines on the tail. Important components of the MIT concept are the use of composite materials for lower weight and turbofan engines with an ultra high bypass ratio (meaning air flow through the core of the engine is even smaller, while air flow through the duct surrounding the core is substantially larger, than in a conventional engine) for more efficient thrust. In a reversal of current design trends the MIT concept increases the bypass ratio by minimizing expansion of the overall diameter of the engine and shrinking the diameter of the jet exhaust instead. 

Northrop Grumman foresees the greatest need for a smaller 120-passenger aircraft that is tailored for shorter runways in order to help expand capacity and reduce delays. The team describes its Silent Efficient Low Emissions Commercial Transport, or SELECT, concept as "revolutionary in its performance, if not in its appearance." Ceramic composites, nanotechnology and shape memory alloys figure prominently in the airframe and ultra high bypass ratio propulsion system construction. The aircraft delivers on environmental and operational goals in large part by using smaller airports, with runways as short as 5,000 feet, for a wider geographic distribution of air traffic.

The Boeing Company's Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research, or SUGAR, team examined five concepts. The team's preferred concept, the SUGAR Volt, is a twin-engine aircraft with hybrid propulsion technology, a tube-shaped body and a truss-braced wing mounted to the top. Compared to the typical wing used today, the SUGAR Volt wing is longer from tip to tip, shorter from leading edge to trailing edge, and has less sweep. It also may include hinges to fold the wings while parked close together at airport gates. Projected advances in battery technology enable a unique, hybrid turbo-electric propulsion system. The aircraft's engines could use both fuel to burn in the engine's core, and electricity to turn the turbofan when the core is powered down.

NASA said it expects to award one or two research contracts for work starting in 2011.

NASA began trying to define future passenger aircraft in 2008 asking experts to imagine what the future passenger aviation might look like.  NASA said its goals for a 2030-era aircraft were: 

- Achieve a 71-decibel reduction below current Federal Aviation Administration noise standards

-Reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by 75%

-Reduce fuel burning performance by  70%

-Exploit what NASA called metroplex concepts that enable optimal use of runways at multiple airports within metropolitan areas, as a means of reducing air traffic congestion and delays.   

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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