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Economic Development Done Right

NASA and MIT pioneer new technologies for lightweight aircraft.

Greek mythology tells of the inventor Daedalus using wings of his own fashioning to escape from imprisonment on the island of Crete. In 1988, a similar adventure was launched, though in this case, carbon-fiber composites, gears, and driveshafts were featured instead of wax and feathers.

altIn 1987, a group of students, alumni, and professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) gathered at Dryden Flight Research Center in California. Inspired by the Greek myth, the team started work on a series of lightweight, human-powered aircraft designed to reenact Daedalus’ flight. In April 1988, the 69-pound Daedalus 88 launched from Crete. Powered only by the pedaling of the pilot, a Greek champion cyclist, the aircraft flew nearly four hours and approximately 123 miles before winds drove it into the sea just off the coast of the island of Santorini.

Setting distance and duration records for human-powered flight that are still unmatched today, the Daedalus project provided NASA and the MIT team the opportunity to explore new technologies for lightweight aircraft and high-altitude, long-duration flight. From this effort also came the kernel of a company that — with the help of NASA partnerships — is producing some of the world’s most advanced aviation technologies.

In 1989, John Langford founded Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation in a small office in Alexandria, VA. Langford had managed the Daedalus project and saw great potential in applying the technologies developed for that effort to the innovation of high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for global climate change research.

Almost immediately, Aurora established a pattern of partnership with NASA that continues today. The company has engaged in numerous Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) projects with NASA. These partnerships have provided opportunities for Aurora on multiple fronts, Langford says.

Aurora, now headquartered in Manassas, VA, also partnered with Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and West Virginia University through a Space Act Agreement. As a result of the partnership, Aurora developed low-cost composite materials fabrication capabilities and opened a manufacturing facility in West Virginia. This enabled Aurora to provide cost-efficient airframe parts for the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk UAV, designed for the U.S. Air Force.

Creating Jobs and Advancing Science

altAurora now has 350 employees and has facilities in Mississippi and Massachusetts, in addition to its West Virginia and Virginia operations. The company employs 160 people in its NASA-enabled West Virginia plant, and about one-third of Aurora’s work force is dedicated to the company’s Global Hawk efforts. Aurora now supplies all the composite structures for Global Hawk, except for the wings.

“This is an example of economic development done right,” Langford said. “You want to build up the economy across the country, and this was a move that NASA participated in that has been very successful.”

The partnership has also allowed Aurora to contribute to the use of UAVs for scientific endeavors; NASA’s two Global Hawk aircraft recently completed long-duration science missions to study climate change and hurricane behavior.

In the meantime, Aurora is continuing work on a number of UAV projects, including a solar-powered aircraft that may one day perform flights of up to five years at a time.

This article was written by Bo Schwerin for Spinoff. Visit www.techbriefs.com/component/content/article/10658 for the full story.