Inside the Top 10 hot aerospace technologies

NASA Hypersonic Experimental
Is it possible to fly faster, farther, greener and safer than ever before? Seems the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) thinks so.  The group released its first Top 10 Emerging Aerospace Technologies of 2009 report this week which featured greener aviation and alternative aircraft fuel developments as the top budding technologies.

Specifically the AIAA's hot list includes:

Go green: "Greener aviation" technologies includes everything from emission and noise reduction technologies such as the ones being developed for the Federal Aviation Administration's Continuous Low Emissions, Energy and Noise (CLEEN) program.  The FAA is looking to build what it calls a world-class consortium for development, maturing and certification of lower energy, emissions, noise, engine and airframe technology over 10 years.

The group also pointed toward the European Environmentally Friendly Engine (EFE) program and "Clean Sky" Joint Technology Initiative which is seeking to reduce perceived jet noise to a half of current average levels; cut carbon emissions by 50%; cut fuel consumption by 50%; cut nitrogen dioxide (NOx) emissions by 80%; and reduce the weight of engines.

NASA too has focused on developing aircraft that are safer, less expensive and easier to operate, while having fewer negative effects on the environment and communities surrounding airports.  For example, the agency has developed Personal Air Vehicles (PAVs) which are small, relatively inexpensive aircraft that can be used for personal travel -- basically a car in the sky. NASA aeronautics developed the PAV concept with the idea of transporting people to within just a few miles of their doorstep destination at trip speeds three to four times faster than airlines or cars. NASA predicts that up to 45% of all miles traveled in the future may be in PAVs. This will relieve congestion at metropolitan hub airports and the freeways that surround them, reduce the need to build new highways and save much of the 6.8 billion gallons of fuel wasted in surface gridlock each year, NASA said.

Go alternative: Closely related to the green effort is alternative fuel development including biofuels, as promoted by the FAA's Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) and the recent FAA grant to the X Prize Foundation to spur development of renewable aviation fuels and technologies.   According to the FAA CAAFI's specific goals are to promote the development of alternative fuel options that offer equivalent levels of safety and compare favorably with petroleum-based jet fuel on cost and environmental bases.

The FAA and the X PRIZE Foundation meanwhile hope to inspire the private sector and a new generation of individuals on the need and practical solutions offered through alternative fuels and adaptive technologies in aviation, the FAA said.  The FAA said that over the next 14 months, the X PRIZE Foundation will consult with industry experts to develop a strategy to bring together the best minds in the aviation and science communities to solve the technical challenges and speed up the development and implementation of cost-effective renewable aviation fuels.  These will be environmentally friendly and won't have negative side effects, such as the displacement of food production or the inducement of land use changes that lead to additional greenhouse gas emissions, the group said.

The Air Force has gone whole hog into the alternative fuel development cycle as well. Last year for example it successfully flew a B-1B aircraft at supersonic speed using an alternate fuel in a flight over the White Sands Missile Range in Texas and New Mexico.  The fuel, a 50/50 blend of synthetic and petroleum gas, is being tested as part of an ongoing Air Force program to use a fuel produced in the US, the Air Force said.    The Air Force wants to fuel half its North American fleet with a synthetic-fuel blend by 2016.

Go faster:  High-speed flight technologies - such as supersonic and hypersonic aerodynamics, sonic boom reduction technology, and thermal management aids. Here the folks at NASA and the Air Force for example, have said they would be offering up to $35 million to help fund research that could ultimately develop aircraft that can fly at over five-times the speed of sound or faster. Such hypersonic aircraft face myriad trajectory control, propulsion and heat-related issues akin to what a spacecraft would endure, experts say.  

DARPA too is looking to build a craft capable of Mach 6+.

On the sonic boom front, NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) have announced a partnership to jointly research sonic boom and reduce its impact. NASA said sonic boom modeling is one of the key technologies needed to let a next generation supersonic aircraft quiet enough that it can fly supersonically over land without significant disturbance to the people or damage to property under such noise.

Get economical:  Efficient Propulsion Technologies - including open rotors and geared turbofans, such as those used in the European DREAM (valiDation Radical Engine Architecture systeMs) program. The project in part  looks to develop advanced technologies mainly devoted to fuel consumption / CO2 reduction pollution reduction while keeping noise levels down.

Let it flow: Active Flow Technologies - such as plasma actuators. Such technology could be used on super- or hypersonic aircraft to control the aircraft's movements.  NASA notes that flow control in general is a fluid dynamics technology which is being exploited to improve the performance of aerodynamic surfaces under widely varying conditions. Many of these technologies are becoming common on present day aircraft as passive devices in the form of vortex generators on the upper surface of wings and the vertical winglets seen at the wing tips.  NASA goes on to say in active flow control the intent is to apply the control device when needed, thereby gaining the desired improvement. When not required, the control is not applied, and does not detract from the natural performance of the flow surfaces in the engine.

You are what you're made of: Advanced Materials - such as nanotechnology and composites. Lightweight and strong composites will continue to be a game-changing technology for aerospace.  Composites are being developed that won't melt under high-speeds or can handle space atmosphere.

The shapes of  things to come:  Active Structures - such as shape memory alloys, morphing, and flapping.  On its Web site, EADS Military Air Systems says it  is investigating innovative design concepts in which the interaction between external aerodynamic forces and the elastic behavior of aircraft will be exploited in order to ensure optimum efficiency for different flight conditions and loads. Airplanes can twist and change aerodynamic shape as they fly, especially at high speed, so such systems can take advantage of that change or try to minimize it.

NASA has worked with developing such technology.  For example it developed technology that demonstrated improved aircraft roll control through aerodynamically induced wing twist on a full-scale high performance aircraft at transonic and supersonic speeds. Data was obtained to develop design information for blending flexible wing structures with control law techniques to obtain the performance of current day aircraft with much lighter wing structures. The flight data included aerodynamic, structural and flight control characteristics that demonstrated and measured the AAW concept in a comparatively low cost, effective manner. The data also will provide benchmark design criteria as guidance for future aircraft designs.

Healthy flying: Health Management - such as monitoring, prognostics, and self-healing.  The idea here is that systems will be further enhanced to do better remote collection, monitoring, and analysis of airplane data to determine the craft's status.  A number of these systems exists today on airplanes built by Boeing and Airbus.  In fact the computer systems aboard the  ill-fated Air France jet that crashed this week had notified to its headquarters it was having electrical problems. 

An unmanned world: Remote Sensing Technologies - including unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites such as those used in NASA's Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) program. GEOSS uses a variety of unmanned devices to gather all manner of environmental data. NASA has drone aircraft outfitted with special sensors and technology to help  scientists predict everything from a hurricane's intensity and track and how fast Arctic summer ice will melt to whether soggy Pacific storms will flood West Coast cities.

unmanned aircraft
And the market for sophisticated unmanned aircraft grows all the time.  The  US Air Force says next year it will acquire more unmanned aircraft than manned. Researchers at the Teal Group said in their 2008 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV spending of $3.4 billion annually to $7.3 billion, totaling close to $55 billion in the next ten years. The forecast also indicates that the US could account for 73% of the world's research and development investment unmanned flight in the next decade.    

Getting spacey: Advanced Space Propulsion Technologies - including plasma-based propulsion such as the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket, and solar sail technologies.

The design of the VASIMR prototype is collaboration between the Department of Energy and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and its Center for Manufacturing Technology, NASA says.  The VASIMR is expected to be commercially useful for boosting communication satellites and other Earth-orbiting spacecraft to higher orbits, retrieving and servicing spacecraft in high orbits around the Earth, and boosting high-payload robotic spacecraft on very fast missions to other planets.

According to NASA the VASIMR should make it possible for robotic spacecraft to travel quickly to the outer reaches of the Solar system and begin probing interstellar space. By far, the greatest potential of the VASIMR is expected to lie in its ability to significantly reduce the trip times for human missions to Mars and beyond. This reduction in times is expected to enable long-term exploration of outer space by humans - something that conventional rocket designs now preclude.

The AIAA says it is the world's largest professional society boasting 35,000 members involved in promoting the progress of aviation engineering and science, space and defense.

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