NASA: “Wild” technology will transform aviation

NASA: Artificial intelligence, electronic propulsion just a couple new aviation technologies under study

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It’s not often you see a button-down organization like NASA call something “wild” but that’s what the space agency is calling six concepts – ranging from adding artificial intelligence to unmanned aircraft to using electricity for propulsion -- it has picked to study to revolutionize the aviation world.

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The project, known as Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) is looking to develop what NASA called “something truly historic – the buzzword is ‘transformative’ – and help crack tomorrow's biggest challenges in aviation related to fuel use, the environment, and managing global growth in air traffic.”

The six ideas selected for the feasibility studies include:

  • Multifunctional Structures with Energy Storage: A challenge with electric propulsion is the mass (volume and weight) 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, NASA says.
  • 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 result in making it possible for a UAV to respond to those situations on its own, without remote human interaction, in ways that are as sure and predictable as would be made by 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, as well as advances in designing future aircraft that can adapt to changing flight conditions by such techniques as changing the shape of their wings. The question is, what if those technologies could be combined such that super strong, lightweight composite structures also are able to be flexible and 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 reduces the size and weight of the required equipment. At the same time, researchers will investigate the use in the power distribution system of "self-healing" insulation. 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, NASA says.
  • 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 order to prevent them from developing, NASA says.
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NASA has been in the business of shaping the future of aviation for years. Most recently it has been testing wing technology that promises to improve aerodynamics.

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From NASA: “For the Active Flow Control Enhanced Vertical Tail Flight Experiment on board the ecoDemonstrator 757, 31 tiny devices called sweeping jet actuators were installed on the aircraft’s vertical tail to see what – if any – effect they have on the aerodynamics of the tail and rudder surfaces. In the photo, white tufts pepper the side of the tail on which the actuators are installed; the tufts help researchers visualize the flow of air.”

NASA said the job of an airplane's vertical tail is to provide stability and directional control during takeoff and landing. The possible future benefit of the active flow control work is that the technology could take over some of the work provided now by the tail's size. "If we can control the flow of air over the vertical tail on demand, we believe we can provide enough side force during take-off and landing that aircraft manufacturers can safely make the tail smaller," said Mike Alexander, lead systems engineer for the flight tests at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. "The ability to reduce the size of the vertical tail would reduce weight and drag and decrease fuel consumption and emissions."

NASA has also been working on electrical-powered engines and shape changing wing flaps.

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