The United States is undertaking the largest transformation of air traffic control ever attempted. The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, is a multi-billion-dollar technology modernization effort that will make air travel safer, more flexible and efficient. NASA is one of several U.S. government agencies that play a crucial role in helping to make NextGen a reality through research and development of new ideas and technologies.
In Part 1 of this series, Leighton Quon, project manager of NextGen Systems Analysis, Integration, and Evaluation at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., answered eight questions about NASA’s research into improving the air traffic control system.
In Part 2, presented here, NASA project managers Ruben Del Rosario and Fay Collier answer eight questions about the agency’s research into the new aircraft and engine designs that could be flying when NextGen is operational.
Del Rosario is manager of the Subsonic Fixed Wing Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland. Collier is manager of the Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The projects represent some of the work being done at NASA’s aeronautics laboratories in Virginia, California and Ohio.
1) What will be different about the aircraft and engines when NextGen is a reality?
Airliners of the future are going to be kinder to the environment in every way possible, propelled by jet engines that are quieter, use less fuel and send less pollution into the air. Aircraft will be made using even more composite material than they are today. Eventually we could see passenger aircraft that can fly faster than the speed of sound or take off and land like a helicopter. If you’re interested in numbers, by 2025 we’d like to see vehicles that burn half as much fuel and put out half as much harmful exhaust compared to the best equipment flying today. The numbers are even more aggressive if we look ahead another decade. We even have a goal that says by 2035, if you live close to a major airport, the only objectionable noise you might hear will come from your next door neighbor, not from any nearby takeoffs and landings.
2) What will these new vehicles look like?
We don’t know for sure, yet, but you can count on the fact that airliners of the future are going to look like something between what you’re used to seeing flying today and nothing that has ever been flown before. Not only will they look more exotic – perhaps with engines on top of the wings instead of below – they will be made entirely out of materials other than metals such as aluminum or titanium. We could even have engines that are partly powered by electricity, just like hybrid cars.
3) How is NASA involved in developing this new technology?
If you didn’t know, NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was formed in 1915, so we’ve been working on new technology for aviation for nearly 100 years. Today we work closely with the U.S. aviation industry, universities and other government agencies as we lay out our research plans and then use all our talents and capabilities to carry out those plans to make improvements for aviation.
Not unlike children progressing through school, new ideas are nurtured. NASA has two main programs working on these ideas: the Fundamental Aeronautics Program (FAP) and the Integrated Systems Research Program (ISRP). Generally, an idea for some kind of new aviation technology begins its life within FAP (think elementary school). When a new idea has matured enough that it is ready to graduate to the next level (think high school), it moves to the ISRP, where we test several new technologies together to make sure they work well in a larger system, such as an airplane or the air traffic management system. If the concepts get passing grades in those system-level tests, then they graduate from NASA and are ready for further development by industry and the FAA (think college) before entering the aviation “workplace.”
4) In general, what still needs to be invented?
More than you’d think given that airplanes have been around for more than a century. We’re still learning something new about flight every day. To achieve our goals for quieter aircraft that use less fuel and cause less pollution, we need to come up with better ways to design and build aircraft than what we use today. We need more accurate ways to simulate how airplanes will work before we fly them. And we need to be smart enough and flexible enough to be ready to invent those things we don’t even know we need right now.
5) Specifically, what kinds of things are researchers working on right now?
Some of the coolest and promising things we’re now working on include:
- A new method for manufacturing and assembling major airplane parts out of composite material. It will help us build an airplane with fewer parts, prevent damage from spreading if there is a problem, and reduce the overall weight of the airplane. This means that the airplane will use less fuel — or get better gas mileage, to borrow an automotive term.
- Using braces to hold up longer and more slender wings, which computer studies show could help reduce the amount of fuel needed on any given flight. The challenge is that slender wings used on larger airliners become too flexible and can actually start to vibrate dangerously from the force of high speed air moving over them – a phenomenon called flutter. We also are working on ways to automatically change the shape of the wing to control the aerodynamic forces that cause flutter.
- Learning to make aircraft parts using an electron beam that melts a source of metal which is then built up one layer at a time on a rotating surface. Parts made this way would be stronger and lighter, and the method is friendlier to the environment and uses less energy than the current method, which is to carve away at a large block of aluminum or titanium until it is in the desired shape.
- Ways to fly airplanes using a mixture of fuel and batteries, similar to hybrid automobiles that use both gas and electricity. Early studies indicate we could achieve our long range fuel reduction goals with this technology.
- A new type of jet engine called an open rotor, whose fan blades are exposed to the open air. While an airplane with open rotor engines might look a lot like a World War II-era plane with propellers, the new open rotors move a lot more air than propellers do. Tests we have done so far indicate open rotor engines would use much less fuel than today’s jet engines. Although open rotors are as quiet as today’s engines, the challenge is to make them even quieter so they will meet our future noise goals.
6) Will NASA build and operate these new airplanes?
No, there’s no such thing as a NASA airline. Our job is to put more technology into the “tool box” from which the future of aviation can be built. Once those building blocks are made available, it then is up to industry to take those ideas, test them some more to decide if it makes good business sense to use them, and then work with the FAA to certify that they are safe. A great, recent example is a technology called chevrons, which are saw tooth-shaped edges you see around the exhaust nozzle of some jet engines. The chevrons change the flow of exhaust gases as they mix with the air and the result is less noise. Designed and developed by NASA, the technology was turned over to industry, further refined and now can be seen on engines powering Boeing’s new 787 and updated 747 aircraft.
7) When can I expect to fly in these new airplanes?
First, it’s important to note that advances in aviation are always coming. The airplane you fly in five years from now will be more advanced in some ways than the airplane you are flying in today, even if you can’t tell from what the plane looks like on the outside, or while you are sitting inside as a passenger. That said, our belief is that you’ll start seeing some of these ideas first employed in the 2020 to 2025 timeframe. Once again it will be up to industry to determine when it makes the most sense from a business perspective, but everything NASA is working on today are the kind of things that will help the entire aviation community.
8) What will it be like to be a passenger then?
We’re confident that your experience as a passenger aboard one of these new aircraft will be better than your passenger experience today. Fifteen to 20 years from now you will be flying in a quieter airplane that has a more aerodynamic shape, which will require less engine power to push it through the air. And that power will come from more fuel-efficient engines. And when you have these more advanced aircraft flying in skies managed by a fully operational NextGen air traffic management system, you will experience fewer flight delays caused by weather and traffic congestion and you may even be able to fly out of smaller airports closer to your home. The only thing we can’t promise, because it’s not up to NASA, is that the food or in-flight entertainment will be better.