Sam Ortega, manager of the NASA Centennial Challenges Program, leads progressive aerospace initiatives, encouraging the participation of independent teams, individual inventors, student groups, and private companies. Most recently, the program’s Green Flight Challenge awarded the largest prize in aviation history.

NASA Tech Briefs: What is the Green Flight Challenge?

Sam Ortega: The Green Flight Challenge was our biggest challenge ever conducted. The purpose was to really push the innovation levels for green aviation itself. We wanted teams to manufacture or build an aircraft that would have the efficiency of a [Toyota] Prius; that would get 200 passenger miles per gallon of gas or gas equivalent; and would be as fast as a Corvette. It would also have to fly at 100 mph. Prior airplanes only had the efficiency of 40 passenger miles per gallon, as opposed to the 200 that we were trying to shoot for.

NTB: Who won the challenge? Can you describe their aircraft?

Ortega: Jack Langelaan, a professor at Penn State University, acquired some technology from a company named Pipistrel-USA. They configured an aircraft with two fuselages — two separate areas where passengers would sit side by side. They were connected by a center wing, and then they had a typical left and right wing off of either side of the fuselage itself. It really was a unique looking aircraft, and it performed fantastically. When we put out the idea that you needed 200 passenger miles per gallon equivalent to win the competition, we were scoffed at. Two years ago, that was an impossible feat to be achieved. Here we are today: we ran the challenge, and not only did Jack Langelaan win with the Pipistrel aircraft, but he achieved 403 passenger miles per gallon. He doubled what the requirement was.

NTB: You said the idea was scoffed at. What have been the challenges in creating efficient aircraft, and why has there been a doubt about that?

Ortega: People were thinking of what we’ve done in history. When we’ve done aircraft improvements, it was more for speed, more for power. The new world order for general aviation is going to be ideas of green aviation, operability, reduction in flight maintenance, and reduction in parts on the aircraft. Those are the new challenges that are out there. When you look at the old historical model of competitions of aircraft technology, we’re well advanced. When you look at the new paradigms for fewer parts and more fuel efficiency aircraft, we’re right at the beginning of that era.

NTB: Who else was competing in this challenge?

Ortega: When we finally got to the competition, we had five teams that said they were going to compete. On the day before the competition, one team had to drop out, and then on the day of the competition, we actually lost another team due to not meeting all of the rules. By the time we competed, we only had three eligible teams in the competition: Team Phoenix out of Melbourne Florida, e-Genius from Winona, California, and Pipistrel from State College, Pennsylvania.

From a technology perspective, what is the key to aircraft efficiency? What were the innovative technologies that you’ve seen with these three competitors?

Ortega: The two competitors that won, e-Genius and Pipistrel, really pushed hard on efficiency of electric motors and electric batteries, using state-of-the-art batteries and functional structural mechanics. You design into the vehicle itself structural strength, so you don’t have a structural member that isn’t performing a flight function. The wings themselves are integral parts to where the shape and the strength come from. You’re really trying to reduce the weight by doing that.

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.

NTB: What other contests and challenges are in the works?

Ortega: We have some coming up for robotics. One is a sample return robot: an autonomous robot that’s being done by Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They’ll be doing that in June of this year. The idea of autonomous control: Instead of having someone on the ground with a 90-second delay trying to control a robot on a planet or maybe on a moon, you want to have the ability to just drop the robot, and have it go off by itself autonomously, maneuver around, not get stuck anywhere or fall over, and find samples. It knows already, by the algorithms in its software, what is an important sample and what is not an important sample. The robot can then collect it, come back to a designated point, and then you can fly it back home. All that would be done autonomously.

The challenge we have out there is creating the basic algorithms to establish an autonomous robot for it to move around a very large area, avoid the obstacles, collect known samples, and discern whether something is important. Obviously, we’re doing it on the Earth. In an open area, if there’s a pine cone, we know the pine cone is natural, exists here, and we don’t need that, but if the robot needs to grab something else, a block of aluminum with something etched on it, for example, it could say, “Yes, that’s a sample of interest,” store it, and bring it back. That competition has a total prize purse of $1.5 million.

We also have the Night Rover competition. Right now, if we send a robot to the moon, it operates in 14 days of daylight and 14 days of darkness. We would have to shut down operations for 14 days and not do anything at night because we don’t have the power systems to run the robot at night. We want to try and solve that problem and have somebody develop a power system — whether it be a battery, a power cell, a gel battery, a flywheel — and be able to run the robot for 14 days of darkness, and run it for 14 days of daylight non-stop. We want to see if we can develop and improve that power source technology level. Obviously that has applications all over the place. If you can reduce the weight and size of a battery, it will be helpful for green aviation, the automobile industry, or anybody that’s using electric power sources.

We have some other challenges that are related to space elevator technology, strong tethers, and power binning, which is the wireless transmission of power. We have another one that we’re going to be starting here very shortly called the Nanosat Launcher Challenge. There’s a huge business base for micro-satellites and cubesats: little satellites that weigh a kilogram, 5 kilograms, 10 kilograms, but have no dedicated launch platform to put those into orbit. We’re running a challenge for the first team to develop a rocket that can launch anything greater than a kg for a single orbit.

NTB: What would you say is the state of aviation now? How much work still needs to be done from an efficiency standpoint?

Ortega: In the US, I think there’s minimal effort being done right now for general aviation efficiency improvements. Right now, I think Boeing has been doing some significant work with their development for larger aircraft efficiency improvements, but we have a long way to go. There are other countries out there that are further advanced in their efficiency airplane design and development. It would be great to build momentum and to start pushing to become the leaders for efficient aviation.

Want to learn more about upcoming NASA Centennial Challenges? For more information, contact Janet Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the January, 2012 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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