by Mark Moore, Aerospace Engineer NASA Langley Research Center
Over the next 50 years, technology innovations have the potential to revolutionize air transportation. But, will this burgeoning aerospace industry attract the best and brightest students, or will it languish due to consolidation and slow growth? Since NASA is charged with exploring the new frontiers of Aeronautics, it also has the responsibility to answer this question.
A unique opportunity exists to integrate the core challenges facing the United States into a pioneering vision. One that combines advanced Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives with ultra safe human-robotic complementation, quiet and clean electric propulsion, and with consensus-based industry rules developed through a NASA/FAA partnership. If these educational, technology, infrastructure, and regulatory challenges were faced head-on, the result would be the compelling new aerial mobility solutions that open up the resources of rural America.
Transformational Flight embraces the "reasonably imaginable" future missions, vehicles, technologies, regulations, and infrastructure that will form the basis for the accompanying future emergent aviation markets.
Think of how much your productivity has increased since the arrival of email and smartphones. The future of transportation can be like that. But instead of informational electrons zipping around to create instantaneous, on-demand communication and information, we would be able to zip people and packages anywhere, anytime, and do it 5 to 10 times faster, and with less energy than used today.
Breakthroughs in machine and operational automation will soon enable small aerial robotic systems to perform unlimited civil application missions, from delivering prescription drugs to assisting lifeguards at beaches to rescue swimmers. These mainstream markets will permit a new age in aerospace products, designed and built for high volume production at extremely low cost.
Aerial robotics can address an incredible variety of future societal needs with small vehicles that can operate in highly distributed and even cooperative operations, without interfering with the airspace of larger aircraft. These small, civil UAVs are just the beginning. The exact same technologies can spring board from an initial unmanned market into on-demand aircraft that can safely and easily transport people, without pilots.
Many other technology frontiers are also emerging for small aircraft and distributed transportation systems to provide dramatically different vehicles and capabilities in aviation. From ultra-quiet, vertical takeoff operations, to incredibly reliable solid-state aircraft, to emissions and efficiency that surpass ground vehicles.
Current airline passengers are burdened with the overhead time required to get to centralized airports, go through ticketing, baggage, security, and the mandatory 30 minute waiting before a flight, the equivalent door to door speed of airliners is only about 150 to 200 mph. But what if we could have aircraft capable of getting us much closer to where we live and work with 150 mph cruise speeds, as well as 100+ mph door-to-door speeds?
Many of the expected technologies will allow passengers to "personalize" air travel through the use of an on-demand, highly distributed air transportation system. Such a system provides the same degree of freedom and control that Americans now enjoy in other aspects of their lives. This trend will continue into the future, as technology can better meet user needs in very personal ways.
Personal Air Vehicles (PAVs) will provide a new transportation choice for trips that range from 50 to 500 miles. People won't have to rely merely on a choice between autos that achieve an average ground speed of 33 mph, or airline travel that operates from the current system of hub and spoke airports that exists today.
Small aircraft platforms have long been plagued with mechanical powertrain problems due to small turbine and reciprocating engine integration issues. The result is complex, inefficient, noisy and poor performing vehicles that do not integrate well with future societal needs and constraints.
At NASA Langley, a novel Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft configuration, called Puffin, is being used as a test bed to explore the benefits of newly emerging electric propulsion technologies. The tests will lead to the development of vehicles with extreme efficiency, reliability, safety and affordability that could operate in close proximity to society without noise or emissions.
Electric technologies in particular offer scale-free integration solutions that promote incredible new degrees of design freedom. But the Puffin is only a beginning concept. Future electric concepts offer complete propulsion system redundancy, enclosed prop-rotor systems that have even lower community noise, and cruise efficiencies that are 4x better than current helicopters.
Langley researchers have also been investigating different technical areas that will pave the way for the needed technology advancements. Areas include intelligent avionics for ease of use, integrated low noise propulsion, advanced engines, new sensors and materials, low-cost, lean-design structures, quality assurance based certification regulations, and a laminar flow fuselage with integrated aero-propulsion – synergistically combined into advanced vehicle concepts and high-density airspace simulations.
Some of the current technical challenges include gust sensitivity at extremely low airspeeds, extreme high lift systems, simplified powered-lift, high cruise efficiency, ultra quiet and airline-like level of safety operations. It is also essential for these technologies and system solutions to apply to distributed operations that permit cost feasibility through high volume production and mass markets – which is a completely different technology development mentality than NASA has ever attempted.
But NASA can't lead the assault into these breakthrough technologies with theoretical analysis or powerpoint engineering. To lead we need to showcase how spiral development and rapid experimentation in aerial robotics can provide early lessons learned and guidance for future larger-scale technology investment. Such efforts can leverage the ability of dynamically-scaled, sub-scaled vehicle testing to push high risk technologies and low readiness levels, to higher levels with relatively small investments that more easily justify increased research investment.
The future of Aeronautics is entering a period as exciting as 100 years ago, awaiting pioneers who are willing to explore the new frontiers. The final question is ours to answer – has NASA become so institutionalized and risk averse after 50 years that this opportunity for vibrant growth is instead sacrificed to a politically acceptable investment strategy that appeases only existing stakeholders?
The Puffin: A Passion for Personal Flight http://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/puffin.html
NASA PAV http://www.youtube.com/user/NASAPAV