Thanks to advancements developed by NASA, today’s aviation industry is better equipped than ever to safely and efficiently transport passengers to their destinations. In fact, every U.S. aircraft and air traffic control tower uses NASA-developed technology. Streamlined aircraft bodies, quieter jet engines, drag-reducing winglets, and lightweight composite structures are an everyday part of flying thanks to NASA research that traces its origins back to the earliest days of aviation. But NASA isn’t finished. Here are some new technologies that could change the airline industry of the future.

In-Flight Folding Wing

NASA is exploring the feasibility of a system that will allow part of an aircraft’s wing to fold in flight to increase efficiency through wing adaptation. Armstrong Flight Research Center, Langley Research Center, and Glenn Research Center are working on the Spanwise Adaptive Wing concept (SAW) that would permit the outboard portions of the wings to move as much as 75 degrees to the optimal position during flight. This could potentially result in an increase in efficiency by reducing drag and increasing lift and performance. A mechanical joint, acting as a hinge line for rotation, makes the freedom of movement possible.

Folding-wing capabilities have been around for decades, but have generally been used to conserve deck space on aircraft carriers and aircraft storage areas. While the XB-70 Valkyrie examined wing articulation 50 years ago, modern actuator technology makes it possible to explore deeper into its potential benefits.

“We are revisiting folding-wing aircraft because new technologies that did not exist in the 1960s allow actuation to be put in tighter wings, in smaller volumes,” said Matt Moholt, Armstrong’s principal investigator for SAW. “Now you can articulate a very small, thin air foil, whereas before, the actuator technology didn’t exist.”

The Spanwise Adaptive Wing (SAW) concept seeks to enhance aircraft performance by allowing the outboard portions of wings to adapt, or fold, according to different flight conditions. (NASA)

The increase in the size of aircraft, including the integration of higheraspect- ratio wings, has made wing articulation more practical in areas of heavy aircraft ground operation. NASA seeks to examine the feasibility of unlocking further benefits from the technology by applying it to flight. This testing is made possible through the use of advanced actuators.

“Some wings are so long that to clear infrastructure, it has to fold on the ground. If we’re going to be articulating wings, let’s explore the use of an advanced actuator that could enable it to articulate in flight as well, then you can really put the wing in an ideal setting,” said Moholt. “Further, why just take the ground benefit of it? Let’s see if there’s a flight benefit of it as well.”

Advanced actuation could make possible a design that is both compact and lightweight, minimizing stress on the wing, and allowing for more compact packaging. Conventional systems have included gearboxes and hydraulic, pneumatic, or magnetic motors. NASA engineers believe actuator technology may be dramatically reduced in size and weight. Additionally, these solid-state actuators can be driven by an all-electric mechanism.

“In supersonic flight, yaw stability becomes a big issue,” said Moholt. “If you’re flying supersonically, you have tons of lift. Let’s say you need more yaw control. If I fold the wing portion all the way down, I may be able to trade lift in favor of more yaw control where I need it, and less lift where I don’t need it.”

Green Aviation

The Active Flow Control green aviation technology was flight tested on Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 757. (Boeing/John D. Parker)

NASA is working to create experimental aircraft that will demonstrate new green aviation technology intended to dramatically reduce fuel use, emissions, and noise — with the goal of cutting emissions from the nation’s commercial aircraft fleet by more than 50 percent while also reducing perceived noise levels near airports to one-half the level of the quietest aircraft flying today.

NASA experiments designed to help reduce fuel consumption and emissions flew on a specially outfitted Boeing 757 airplane called the ecoDemonstrator. The first experiment is the Active Flow Control Enhanced Vertical Tail Flight Experiment. NASA worked with Boeing to install 31 tiny jets called sweeping jet actuators that can manipulate, on demand, the air that flows over the ecoDemonstrator 757’s vertical tail and rudder surfaces. An aircraft’s vertical tail is primarily used to add stability and directional control during takeoff and landing, especially in the event of an engine failure. But when the aircraft is cruising at altitude, the same large, heavy tail is not necessary. Engineers theorized they could reduce the size of the vertical tail by using the sweeping jets to generate the same side force during takeoff and landing that a larger tail does. That would reduce the weight and drag of the airplane and decrease its fuel consumption.

Ground studies by NASA, Boeing, University of Arizona, and Caltech researchers on a full-scale 757 vertical tail in a wind tunnel showed the active flow control jets could increase side force by 20 to 30 percent, which could allow designers to scale down the vertical tail by about 17 percent, and reduce fuel usage by as much as one-half percent.

American Airlines Captain Dan Kiggins tests new technologies, including head-mounted display concepts, in NASA flight simulators to improve aviation safety and efficiency. (NASA/David C. Bowman)

The agency’s other green aviation initiatives include reducing airline emissions and flight delays. Working in partnership with airlines and air traffic controllers at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina, NASA is beginning the first-of-a-kind demonstration of new technologies that coordinate operational schedules for aircraft arrivals, departures, and taxiing.

Pilot Training and Cockpit Displays

Engineers at Langley Research Center are looking at ways to improve flight training, cockpit displays, and other flight deck operations. As a result of a collaboration with American Airlines, they will have the chance to fly as observers in the cockpit during at least a half-dozen round-trip American flights each year to get firsthand knowledge of flight crew actions and reactions.

NASA Langley aviation safety research is helping to improve flight simulator realism following studies by engineers of loss-of-control events, where planes ended up in unsafe orientations or other conditions, such as aerodynamic stall, that sometimes resulted in accidents.

The X-57 features a specially designed wing with 14 electric motors. (NASA Langley/Advanced Concepts Lab, AMA, Inc.)

“By partnering with Langley, American can incorporate higher simulator fidelity and provide more realism in our flight training,” said American Airlines Captain Dan Kiggins. “Making scenarios that are more challenging and more fluid provides a richer training experience for pilots, which ultimately is to the benefit for our passengers.”

Part of the collaboration includes American participation in NASA testing, such as providing professional pilots. Langley also has flight simulators it uses to develop new cockpit technologies and procedures aimed at making flights safer and more efficient.

NASA has a number of agreements with different airlines to help further its research. A Langley association with American — and pilot Kiggins in particular — goes back more than 15 years. Kiggins was one of a half-dozen pilots who not only tested NASA “synthetic vision” technology in simulators, but also assessed the cockpit display while flying a NASA research aircraft in Colorado in 2001.

Synthetic vision systems, which are now available commercially in part because of NASA aviation safety research and collaborations with industry, are display technologies that offer pilots an electronic picture of what’s outside their windows, no matter the weather or time of day. Langley is continuing research into improved vision displays for flight crews. Researchers are also studying workload issues, enhanced training capabilities, and new technologies to help pilots better understand how a plane is behaving.

Electric-Propulsion X Planes

Electric cars are nothing new — they’re more efficient, produce less noise, and emit less carbon into the atmosphere. This is why engineers at Glenn Research Center are taking this technology to the skies. Using NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed (NEAT), the engineers design, develop, and test systems for the next revolution in aviation: electric aircraft.

The cockpit of the first all-electric-propulsion aircraft, the X-57 Maxwell. (NASA/Ken Ulbrich)

During NEAT’s first test last year, the team used 600 Volts of electricity and successfully tested an electrical power system that could realistically power a small, one- or two-person aircraft. Once complete, NEAT will be a world-class, reconfigurable testbed used to assemble and test the power systems for large passenger airplanes with more than 20 Megawatts of power.

By increasing efficiency and reducing weight, the technology developed using NEAT can eventually be applied to larger commercial aircraft, potentially resulting in reduced flying costs for airline companies and travelers.

NASA hopes to validate the idea that distributing electric power across a number of motors integrated with an aircraft will result in a five-time reduction in the energy required for a private plane to cruise at 175 mph. NASA will test new propulsion technology using an experimental airplane designated the X-57 Maxwell, which will fly for the first time in 2018. NASA aeronautics researchers will use Maxwell to demonstrate that electric propulsion can make planes quieter, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly.

Maxwell features 14 electric motors turning propellers, with all of them integrated into a uniquely designed wing. “With the return of piloted X-planes to NASA’s research capabilities — which is a key part of our 10-year-long New Aviation Horizons initiative — the general-aviation-sized X-57 will take the first step in opening a new era of aviation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Maxwell will be powered only by batteries, eliminating carbon emissions and demonstrating how demand would shrink for lead-based aviation fuel still in use by general aviation. Energy efficiency at cruise altitude using X-57 technology could benefit travelers by reducing flight times, fuel usage, as well as reducing overall operational costs for small aircraft by as much as 40 percent. Typically, to get the best fuel efficiency, an airplane has to fly slower than it is able. Electric propulsion essentially eliminates the penalty for cruising at higher speeds.

Finally, as most drivers of hybrid electric cars know, electric motors are quieter than conventional piston engines. The X-57’s electric propulsion technology is expected to significantly decrease aircraft noise, making it less annoying to the public.


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2017 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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