2012

Sam Ortega, Program Manager, NASA Centennial Challenges, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL

A lot of teams were using composite materials for weight reduction. Also, the efficiency of an electric motor to convert the power to torque on a shaft for turning a propeller is much greater on an electric motor than it is on a gas motor. That’s why I believe the two winners were electric aircraft. The one competitor that didn’t meet all of the rules to be able to compete was an entry from Embry-Riddle [Aeronautical University], and they actually flew an aircraft that was the world’s first gasoline/electric hybrid aircraft. They really pushed the envelope of the technology where they were using gas to take off and electricity to cruise — very innovative materials and technology, but they needed a little bit more work to be competitive at that level of 200 passenger miles per gallon, and speeds greater than 100 miles per hour.

NTB: What’s next for the winners, as far as their technology is concerned?

Ortega: The Centennial Challenge Program’s three objectives are 1) innovation (getting the technology), 2) communication (getting the word out), and then 3) opportunities. We want to make sure we provide opportunities to the nonprofit organizations that run the competition, but also to the competitors, even those that didn’t actually make it all the way to the competition. We want to make sure that they have an opportunity to create a business model, start a company, grow their business base if they already have a company, or diverge their business base to a totally different area.

In our challenge, companies had great improvements in electric motors or in battery technology. We can then start seeing if they can spin those into usage for automobiles, for ATVs, or for any other technology platform that they might be able to create a business model out of, and create more economy for their company. I haven’t heard the details of where Pipistrel or e-Genius are prepared to go. We had some discussions at the competition. I know that Eric Raymond from e-Genius is pretty excited about wanting to improve the aircraft that they have. They’re using the money that they received to try and make the aircraft more marketable.

NTB: Given the results, what do you see as the possibilities for a new airplane industry?

Ortega: I think, right now, we’re at the same place the Prius was eight years ago. The communities at that time were looking at the Prius and thinking, “That’s neat. I don’t know if I need to have one in my driveway. It might be good. I don’t know.” Here we are, ten years later, and it’s a very common product. It’s not uncommon to see one driving home from work. They are readily available. People see the advantages of having a Prius or a hybrid vehicle. They’ve even converted up to regular hybrid trucks and SUVs. My hope is that the competition will help foster some momentum behind general aviation to promote efficient aircraft transportation.

One of the biggest complaints you have with aircraft transportation is noise level, and that was one of the challenges within this competition.  They had to be 78 decibels from 250 feet away — pretty much the equivalent sound of a dishwasher. It’s very quiet compared to a regular two-seater Cessna or Piper Cub aircraft flying around. I’m hoping that this competition will push general aviation companies to start considering that there is a market out there, that maybe they should look into developing electric aircraft or hybrid aircraft, and going into that marketplace.

NTB: How important is it for these contests to stimulate private investment?

Ortega: We push for independent inventors mostly– small businesses, student groups, and individuals. Most of them are small businesses. The important part is getting them to advance the economy of their company, get some more business base, and make it more profitable for them to run their company. I hope that’s what a lot of the end products will be — an expansion at a smaller scale for multiple companies to be able to grow.

NTB: You’re the program manager for the NASA Centennial Challenges program. Can you give us an idea of what the NASA Centennial Challenges program is?

Ortega: The Centennial Challenges Program itself began back in the 2005 timeframe. It was named after the Centennial Flight, the 100th anniversary of flight with the Wright Brothers. When the Wright Brothers flew, you had other people standing on the beach watching, and they thought “Eh, it’s neat, but I have my horse. I don’t need that.” And yet, that was a huge turning point in technology. One hundred years later: we’re flying in space, coming back, and landing on the ground.

What we’re hoping to do with Centennial Challenges is find those technology roadblocks that exist for NASA, for the nation, and work together to create a challenge to help resolve those issues, to help us find those turning points. People might come to a challenge and say, “Eh, that was neat.” But five years from now, or ten years from now, people may look back and say, “That was a huge turning point. If we hadn’t done a competition and advanced that technology, we wouldn’t even be halfway to where we are today.” That’s what we’re really trying to do: push the innovative thinking.

NTB: What is your day-to-day work with the program?

Ortega: I have six challenges ongoing right now. Day to day, I’m continually talking with our other nonprofit organizations that we’ve signed agreements with to conduct these challenges: working with them to generate rules and team agreements, making media plans for how we’re going to promote the challenges themselves, and making sure on a day-to-day basis that we’re meeting our three objectives: technology innovation, communication, and opportunity for each of the teams.