NASA looking for a few cool (and green) aircraft

NASA next week is holding another one of it Centenial Challenges this time $300,000 is up for competitors who demonstrate aircraft that are safer, less expensive and easier to operate, while having fewer negative effects on the environment and communities surrounding airports.

The focus in this challenge is on what NASA calls 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.

Centennial Challenges are NASA prize contests to stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration and other ongoing NASA mission areas, the agency said. For example, the agency in the past year has held challenges for developing lunar landers and astronaut gloves.

The 2008 General Aviation Technology Challenge, which is run by the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation, will be held Aug. 4-10 at the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, Calif. The highlight of the event is on Aug. 9 when participants will race in the CAFE 400 -- a 400-mile air race that will go a long way toward determining who gets the cash.

The $300,000 purse will be divided among the following prizes:

  • - The Community Noise Prize: The size of the prize awarded for the Community Noise Prize will vary according to the quietness of the winning aircraft. CAFE research revealed what range of noise levels would be acceptable for the operation of aircraft close to residential areas. Samples from NASA and FAA were combined with CAFE's measured noise results. Other samples were taken of the noise levels generated by cars passing by homes in modern suburban neighborhoods. The effect of high and low power settings was analyzed. The result was a desirable range of quiet operations that while challenging to achieve, can be met with innovation and technological effort. For the noise prize, the aircraft's noise footprint in dBA (slow scale) will be measured as the takeoff noise after brake release and the noise of a high-speed flyover, both measurements to be taken at a 500 foot distance, CAFÉ said.
  • - The Green Prize (for the highest miles per gallon): The Green Prize offers a maximum of $50,000. To win the Green Prize, competing aircraft must score the highest MPGe, or equivalent miles per gallon. MPGe is the aircraft's mileage based upon fuel price, fuel density and the payload carried. A series of tables are given in the rules that delineate how this scoring works. MPGe is evaluated after the aircraft flies the CAFE 400 race course.
  • - The CAFE Safety Prize (for handling and electronic safety features): The $50,000 Aviation Safety Prize will demand excellence and innovation in making the aircraft safer and easier to fly. Among the handling qualities to be evaluated will be spiral stability, maneuvering stability, static longitudinal stability, slow flight, control harmony, roll rate, etc. A stick force gauge will be used to quantify the aircraft's performance in some of these areas.
  • - The CAFE 400 Prize: For 2008, the CAFE 400 race will start each aircraft according to its pre-determined time handicap. The time handicap, known as the Ground Travel Time (GTT), is scaled according to the aircraft's demonstrated takeoff distance. The race finish line thus will see its winner be the first to cross directly overhead of the CAFE Flight Test Center after flying the roughly 400 mile course over Northern California. The CAFE 400 race course entails several significant climbs to mountaintop checkpoints, some as high as 7000 feet MSL. Each checkpoint serves as a turn pylon and is clearly identified. These pylons are all staffed by volunteer spotters and camera crews and are in radio contact during the race.

In 2007, NASA said winning teams shared $250,000. Prizes were awarded for Shortest Runway, Lowest Noise, Highest Top Speed, Best Handling Qualities, and Most Efficient, with the grand Vantage Prize of $100,000 going to the best combination of performance overall. Vance Turner's Pipistrel Virus (pronounced "Veer-us") flown by Michael Coates of Australia won $160,000 by demonstrating the best MPG (29.8), shortest takeoff distance (736 feet over a 50 foot obstacle), 2nd best top speed (162 mph) and most overall points. The debut of the Virus, a high-tech, carbon fiber Experimental Exhibition aircraft produced in Slovenia will likely move it to the lead among the next generation of low cost aircraft, NASA said.

David and Dianne Anders, winners of the $50,000 Noise Prize in a highly-modified RV-4, achieved a noise level 3 times quieter than most small aircraft. That this astonishing feat was accomplished while also flying 192 mph is truly a significant advance in reducing noise, NASA said.

The $25,000 Handling Qualities Prize was fittingly won by the most popular of all personal aircraft, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, NASA said.

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