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NASA EDGE: 2011 Green Flight Challenge
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NASA EDGE: Green Flight Challenge

CAFE Green Flight Challenge
- Brien Seeley
- Joe Kulbeth
- Mark Moore
- Sam Ortega
- Lori Costello
- Eric Raymond
- Prof. Voit-Nitschmann
- Pat Anderson
- Jack Langelaan
- Klaus Ohlmann

Green Energy takes a huge leap forward as teams compete to develop true electric planes for the 2011 CAFE Green Flight Challenge. Blair and Franklin talk to Brien Seeley, the CAFE Foundation's President, about how he became involved in promoting new, green technology. Also, NASA's Mark Moore (Aerospace Engineer) and Sam Ortega (Program Manager - Centennial Challenge) explain the historical significance for this competition and NASA's role in pushing new innovations in flight. Of course, the coolest part are the teams themselves and their planes. Team, e-Genius and Embry-Riddle not only push the experimental envelope, but the planes are fascinating to watch fly. And no, the Co-Host was not allowed to fly in any of the experimental aircraft!.


[Intro Music]

CHRIS: Hey, welcome to NASA EDGE.

JACKY: An inside and outside look.

FRANKLIN: at all things NASA.

BLAIR: Oh, that’s going to leave a mark.

BLAIR: Welcome to NASA EDGE.

FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

BLAIR: We’re here at the Green Flight Challenge 2011 sponsored by Google.

FRANKLIN: In beautiful Santa Rosa, California.

BLAIR: It is beautiful and a little chilly but it doesn’t matter because we’re at a very exciting competition looking at new, innovative technology being employed in these interesting, experimental aircraft.

FRANKLIN: We have a diverse group of competitors from all over who have come here to showcase what they have in green aviation.

BLAIR: What’s exciting Franklin, is they’re going to be evaluated in a lot of different ways. Four major ways are sound take off, take off distance. They’re going to run the entire course for miles per gallon efficiency but then also, again, based on speed. All those things will be judged for a final score where some team may win over a million dollars.

FRANKLIN: We have universities in attendance as well as some companies that work with general aviation. But, I’ve already chosen who I think is actually going to be the winner this week based off of what I’ve seen.

BLAIR: Franklin breading out early with a little prognostication. Tell us Franklin, who do you think is going to win?

FRANKLIN: I think the team behind us, Team Pipistrel, has actually demonstrated the best of what is out here today. Number one, they have a very unique design. This is a one of a kind aircraft behind us. It’s the Taurus G4, which is basically… [laughing]

BLAIR: Check out the big brains on Franklin!

FRANKLIN: I kind of read up on it before we started. It is a really unique aircraft and it’s one of a kind. What I’ve seen so far this week, I think they have the upper hand.

BLAIR: I tell you Franklin it’s a good choice. They’re certainly a great team but I have to go with e-Genius. Not only do I love the motor being mounted from the behind, it’s a very unique and efficient design. But also, they’ve got a great name, e-Genius. I have an affinity for the genii.

FRANKLIN: Because you’re a genius yourself.

[Blair & Franklin laughing]

[engine motor running]

MAN: 3, 2, 1.

[engine revs]

BLAIR: We’re here with Brien Seeley of the CAFE Foundation. Brien, tell us a little bit about the CAFE Foundation and how you got involved in this competition.

BRIEN: It really started with membership here in EAA Chapter 124, which has been the backbone of CAFE all these years. Dr. Larry Ford and I got interested in efficiency and small airplanes, formed a group, and founded the foundation back in 1981. For 10 years, we had the CAFE 400 races here in which we measured the performance of small, experimental airplanes for speed X miles/gallon X cabin payload, a new concept of total efficiency. Becoming fairly well known for that, the National Center for the Experimental Aircraft Association approached CAFE and said would you please be our test agency for experimental, kit-built airplanes? We did this then for 10 years here at this facility, which was provided to us by EAA National. NASA approached us and chose CAFE to be its partner in the Centennial Challenges for Aeronautics. Since then, we’ve put on two prior challenges. They were more conventional general aviation. Upon realizing in 2008 that the world was changing, that the green issue, and the global-warming climate change were emerging issues, and that battery technology was coming along, we decided to take all of the remaining resources available for Centennial Challenge and put it into one, big prize. That’s how we got here today.

MAN: Keep going guys! [Cheering]

BLAIR: How have you felt about the response you’ve had so far?

BRIEN: It’s a very good question because we wanted to set the hurdle bar very high and yet we wanted it to attract a real diversity of innovators. We succeeded in that. We had 14 teams that registered, signed up, and were in the running. Then, of course, the true difficulty of this challenge began to make itself known, and the field began to have some attrition, as you might say. We see just how hard it really is and yet that’s an affirmation that, I think, we’ve set the bar just right.

FRANKLIN: Brien, what were some of the obstacles that some of the teams were unable to overcome?

BRIEN: Well, quite a diversity of obstacles. One of them was funding. One of them was running out of time. One of them was the inevitable, unforeseen event; a hard landing or a vibrating engine that couldn’t be tamed, or things of that nature. It was many different things that came into play but it certainly was an inspiration. I consider every single one of the 14 teams to have been a true hero to jump into this.


BLAIR: As CAFE moves forward, what kind of challenges do you see in the future, especially with this relationship with NASA? You’ve had this. What’s next for CAFE?

BRIEN: The big excitement is that with electric aircraft you have, for the first time, an opportunity for extremely low noise. If you solve the noise problem, then you solve the neighborhood problem; you solve the land use problem by bringing in the high-lift technologies, the short runway capabilities. The first step, as you’ve seen here, is to prove the airplanes have a legitimate place in the world of efficient travel, emission-free, and that they can essentially rival a Prius in their economy. That’s the great challenge. Nature has had 13 million years to perfect its aircraft and we’ve had only a hundred. We have a long ways to go.


BLAIR: We’re here with Joe Kolbeth and we’re sitting in a DistAir motor glider, right? Is that what this is?

JOE: Most people refer to it as a motor glider but actually the category is glider…

BLAIR: Okay.

JOE: And self-launch. Because it has an engine it doesn’t require a tow-plane to get it aloft and fly.

BLAIR: I understand another unique feature about this particular plane is that this is a former CAFE Challenge winner in 2008.

JOE: That’s correct; the exact model airplane. That particular airplane, N109UA, lives in Portland, Oregon. But this is the exact same model.

BLAIR: That’s cool. The main thing is when we look at these challenges and see people competing, they’re technology doesn’t just win an award, eventually it goes on and makes its way into planes and are used. In this case, obviously, you have a very efficient plane here.

JOE: It’s extremely efficient. It’s like a Rolex watch. When it comes to an engine, it’s smooth and silky. If you take care of it nicely, it will run forever. Two thousand hours is before overhaul.


JOE: That’s a lot. That’s a lifetime.

BLAIR: I think this might be the plane.

JOE: This is it.

FRANKLIN: See, I told you we were going to get you on tape.

BLAIR: That’s right.

JOE: See the horizon.

BLAIR: Yeah.

JOE: See the horizon out there?

BLAIR: Yeah.

JOE: That’s how you check if your wings are level. See that?

BLAIR: Oh, wow.

JOE: If you want to climb, you pull back. If you want to go down, forward.


BLAIR: Guys, I wanted to talk primarily about how NASA got involved in this particular Green Flight Challenge competition.

MARK: We’re looking for new frontiers, and electric propulsion, green flight is a new frontier for brand new technologies. The electric motor and battery systems and controllers that you see demonstrated here in the competition are our bigger step away from turbines and reciprocating engines then we’ve taken in a long time.

BLAIR: As far as NASA’s concerned how do you decide which technologies you think are valuable and which ones you want to push?

SAM: NASA knows where they want to be in 20 years, and 30 years. We look at our technology roadmaps. We see where our roadblocks are. Then we got out to private industry, we talk with them, see where their technology points are that they need to get development on, marry the two together and then come up with a list of challenges we want to go forward with.

BLAIR: How do you determine what kind of objectives you want for a competition like this? The rules, if you will?

MARK: For this Green Flight Challenge we specifically went after efficiency while keeping as much speed as was reasonable. And then, we imposed some other constraints, such as how much noise you could make, how much distance you could take off with. So specifically the Green Flight Challenge, the minimum threshold, in order to win the $1.65 million dollar prize, is to achieve at least 200-passenger miles/gallon. If you think of that, for instance, this Taurus G4 behind us, that’s carrying four people, that means, in order just to qualify, this aircraft has to be able to fly 50 miles/gallon.


MARK: Which is like a Taurus, right?

SAM: Yep. Right.

MARK: And if you look at existing small aircraft, they’re more like SUV’s getting 10 miles/gallon. But the cool thing is this aircraft flies at 2 to 3 times the speed of a Taurus. You’re getting a huge step in efficiency while getting other really fantastic things like low noise. Community noise, that’s important to NASA. Zero emission, that’s really important to NASA. There are all sorts of cool things that go along with electric propulsion that you get for free.

BLAIR: Speaking of $1.65 million dollars that seems like a lot of money. How do you determine the prize and how is this typical prize money used?

SAM: Typically, you’re going to want to set a prize value that is a percentage of what the participant would invest in their technology. A lot of our teams here have spent well more than $1.6 million just to get into the technology there.

MARK: So, you combine across all the 13 teams and you’re at tens of millions of dollars that went into this. That’s one of the really powerful things about these Centennial Challenges. You get this fantastic ratio of private investment versus public investment. $1.65 million may sound like a lot. It’s not a lot of money when you’re talking about flight demonstrations with human beings with one-of-a-kind aircraft. NASA can’t do this on their own. We need private companies, universities to help us with this exploration. So just gaining the critical mass to get the brightest minds. You talk to some of these companies here. These are incredibly bright, young engineers. And it is a privilege to work with them and see them put 14, 16-hour days for many, many months because they believe in this future vision of what electric flight could mean across the world in terms of being an incredibly sustainable and environmentally friendly solution.

SAM: There are other small technologies that you can take out of this. We have these new, efficient, electric motors. We have them on the airplanes with the propellers right now. What’s to say that you couldn’t take that idea and make it smaller? Let’s start motorizing the wheels of the larger aircraft. Let’s slip it into there. Now, instead of having to depend fully on the jet engines, you can have the motorized wheels to help speed up the aircraft as well, so you’re losing less fuel on takeoffs.

MARK: And we’re already doing studies for large aircraft of hybrid electric systems that can be much more efficient. In fact, we’re talking about commercial transports that would be 70% more efficient with drastic reductions in the carbon emissions. That’s just goodness for all of us.


BLAIR: Well Franklin, we’ve talked a lot about how NASA got involved in this competition, how CAFE got involved. Now, we need to talk about the teams.

FRANKLIN: Yes. As I said before a very diverse group of teams from all over, and exactly what they did with their aircraft to get it ready for the Green Flight Challenge.

BLAIR: Pay close attention and you can determine whether you’re going to go with Franklin’s team, Pipistrel or e-Genius, PhoEnix, or the feel good pick of the competition, Embry-Riddle.


FRANKLIN: I’m here with Lori Costello, who is the student lead for the Embry Riddle Eco-Eagle. The only part of this glider that you actually used is the frame. Talk to me about the hybrid reconfiguration of this aircraft.

LORI: Basically, we took everything out of the engine compartment, which is located aft of the cockpit, and then we took everything forward of the cockpit out. We put in a Rotax 912, which is a gas engine, and we put in a 40-horsepower electric motor. We also cut into the wings and put battery trays on the wings. We put in a far more efficient propeller up front. So, we had to do all of that.

FRANKLIN: This kind of sounds like this is a flying Prius.

LORI: Um, sort of but we’re not charging back up the batteries, and we can switch between the gas and the electric whenever we want. The basic flight profile is to take off with the gas engine and to transition to electrical power once we get into our cruising portion of our flight.

BLAIR: Could you take us through a few of the features of the plane that you incorporated for the challenge?

ERIC: For better crew communication, we have the seats side by side. It allows a lot of sharing of responsibilities as opposed to front to back seating. It has a ballistic parachute system that comes out from the center of the wing. You can see this red handle right between the seats. If we pull that red handle a pyrotechnic device pulls a parachute straight up, and in about two seconds we’re under a very large, round parachute.

BLAIR: That was one of the requirements for the challenge?

ERIC: Yes. The organizers assumed that people would be pushing things to the limit and flying as fast as they dare.

[plane engine overhead]

BLAIR: Another feature I’m noticing is the… I call it an odd placement of the propeller. I don’t know if that is true or not. What’s the motivation behind the design here?

ERIC: It’s optimal. If you put the propeller on the nose, you have this high wind speed blowing over the whole fuselage. Also, this is what we call a laminar flow shape, which means it’s more like a fish slipping through the water. I’m sure you’ve noticed fish slip through the water with incredible ease. It has clean airflow, and it’s not blowing over anything other than the rudder. That actually gives us a little bit better control on the ground when we’re running the motor. It’s the best of everything.

PROF. VOIT-NITSCHMANN: The major task is to get a very economical aircraft; to optimize it for electric flight. That means, not only, to install an electric power train. You also have to optimize the whole aircraft for this item. Therefore, we put the engine in the rear, and we integrated the batteries. We optimized the aircraft for very high wing loading for high load because you have to carry a lot of weight due to the battery weight. This is a real, new task for aircraft design.

BLAIR: You’re using a particular kind of battery.

PROF. VOIT-NITSCHMANN: Yes, lithium-ion batteries, and a lot of them, of course. 280 kilograms we have integrated in this plane. This will provide us the capability to fly maximum four hours, and to fulfill the requirements of the Green Flight Challenge.

FRANKLIN: Unfortunately for this contest you are unable to compete. Why? What happened?

PAT: We are. One of the things you have to understand is that this is the most complex airplane probably on this field. To our left, we have all electric airplanes, and to our right, we have all gas airplanes. This airplane, being a historical first, it has both. Even though that’s very common in cars, it’s uncommon in airplanes. It’s very complex. It’s been flying for about 5 weeks. We consider this still a very R&D type airplane. To that end, we only allow required crew; in this particular airplane, required crew is one. The sponsors of this contest would like to see two people in the airplane and that’s one of the rules. We understand that’s one of their rules. We just don’t feel comfortable meeting that rule. We hope to show the airplane here. The airplane still has a lot to go in improving the efficiency of it. We’re comfortable sitting here showing our airplane and seeing how we do against the others in our own controlled, safety environment. We’re one of the few schools, if not the only school in the United States, who will actually let students operate an experimental airplane that’s manned in a contest. We need to make sure safety is first in our operations.

FRANKLIN: And it doesn’t hurt to get a little face time on NASA EDGE.

PAT: It doesn’t. Man, you guys are great.

[airplane engine running]

BLAIR: Jack, my big question is how did Team Pipistrel get involved in the challenge?

JACK: When I first heard about the challenge, about a year & half, two years ago, the first thing I did was take a look to see if it was really feasible for an airplane to fly at 200-passenger miles/gallon. Pretty quickly, it turned out, that if you get a good, modern, motor glider, you could pretty easily make the 200-passenger miles/gallon, as long as you can modify the aircraft and meet all the other requirements. Pipistrel came up with the idea of putting together two of their Taurus fuselages, in fact, everything from one fuselage outboard is entirely stock Taurus. It’s only the inner wing, and the nacelle, that you see there, that has been specially built for the competition.

BLAIR: Sorry. The what? The nacelle?

JACK: Yeah, the nacelle is that large pod in the middle that says Pipistrel in large letters.

BLAIR: Oh, okay.

JACK: Inside the nacelle we’ve got the electric motor, the speed controller, gearbox, and some of our batteries. One of the things that we’re doing is getting really high-accuracy, high-density meteorology data from Penn State’s Department of Meteorology so we know wind fields to really high, actually 4 km spacing up there and an altitude space by about 300 foot intervals. We really know what the wind is doing up there. We’re using those predictions of wind to help plan our path around the course. We know whether it’s worth it to fly high to take advantage of winds at high level or whether we should stay low. We’re going to know how much power we have to put into the airplane, how fast the airplane should fly to maximize the miles/gallon that we’re flying.

BLAIR: The team has flown. Have they come back and said yes, this is excellent; this is getting us the data we need?

JACK: I’ll tell you on our miles/gallon flight yesterday, for the first two laps we were flying the course within 1% of our predicted energy consumption.

BLAIR: Oh great.

JACK: Yeah. So we’re ecstatic about how close their predictions are matching our actual performance of the airplane.

BLAIR: It sounds like there is a lot of activity going on during these flights. Do you ever get a chance to look around and think how great it is your flying in northern California and enjoying the beauty? Is there any time to do that?

KLAUS: Of course, if you want. I am always looking outside of course. Yesterday we flew up to the north and then we could see the seaside in the west. We could see the Bay of San Francisco in the south. We could see this little fog, which was on the coastline. It was beautiful, beautiful.

BLAIR: That’s Klaus from my team!

FRANKLIN: What about Jack from Team Pipistrel?

BLAIR: Again, admittedly, a very competent guy but I’m still sticking with e-Genius.

FRANKLIN: You know if Chris were here he’d be pulling for Jack because it’s his fellow alum from Penn State.

BLAIR: Is that tampering? Anyway, it’s been a great competition. It’s been great to see these teams actually run through the course and get to know them a little bit. There are lots of stories behind these guys.

FRANKLIN: You know, you’ve got to have a heart for the team from Embry Riddle with the Eco-Eagle. It’s one thing to see engineers, seasoned veterans out here, and engineers who have been in the game for years but you have students, almost kids over here, working on this aircraft. They were just happy to get here and then, in this case, demonstrate their aircraft.

BLAIR: And then, of course, team PhoEnix during all the competition is flying like an ace pilot doing all kinds of maneuvers.

[plane engine]

BLAIR: We’ve seen a lot of diversity in the teams and even in how they approached the competition. We’re really looking forward to finding out what the judges had to say in the competition and finding out who’s going to win the Green Flight Challenge 2011 sponsored by Google.

DAVID: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s awards ceremony here at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. It’s a wonderful day to announce the winner of the first Green Flight Challenge.

JOE: In first place with a passenger miles/gallon of 403.5.


JOE: …is the Langelaan Aerospace LLC Pipistrel USA Team led by Jack Langelaan. Your prize is $1.35 million.


JOE: Good job. Congratulations.

BLAIR: Congratulations Sam on a successful Centennial Challenge, the Green Flight Challenge. I understand Team Pipistrel won with a 403.5 pmpg score. What is passenger mile per gallon?

SAM: It’s our way to have a good baseline for how you measure what the efficiency of the aircraft was. Some aircraft have four passengers, some have two, some have one. So, how do you take advantage of being able to measure it equally for everybody? The best way to explain it would be, again, going back to the Prius. It gets about 40 mpg and if you put 5 people in it you have 5 times the 40 mpg, you have 200; 5 x 40, pmpg of gas consumed.

BLAIR: When you started this competition, I understand that you were only requiring or expecting people to approach that 200 pmpg area. You’ve got to be pretty excited.

SAM: I am with the 403, exactly. When we first set up the rules for the competition 2 years ago instead we need 200 pmpg, we were scoffed at. People thought that’s totally unachievable. There’s no way you’re going to have any winners. But yet, here we are two years later, not only did we meet the 200 pmpg equivalent, we completely passed it. We doubled it with over 400 pmpg equivalent. I understand that you were involved a little bit of a guess as to who might be the winner.

BLAIR: Yes. I picked e-Genius. They did very well, over 350 some.

SAM: I only think it is fitting for you, as the loser, can present Franklin, the winner, with the check.

BLAIR: This is so unfair. Franklin does not deserve a big check. Of course, to Franklin this is probably a normal size check.

SAM: It works.

BLAIR: Double or nothing the bank does not cash that check.

FRANKLIN: You are on!

BLAIR: Sucker.

[door shuts]

FRANKLIN: Twin Abe Lincolns.


FRANKLIN: Make that out to Every Man, and in the memo line put college fund.

BLAIR: This is ridiculous.

FRANKLIN: Thank you.

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