NASA Funds Innovative New Aircraft Design

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Aviation is a big deal for climate change. Not only is it a big contributor, but it’s an area where changes to improve efficiency can have a huge impact. For this reason, both private companies and government agencies know this is a great target to both save money and protect the environment. While NASA is well known for its space programs, it’s easy to forget that NASA stands for both Aeronautics and Space. And, with a recent announcement, it is pushing yet another aviation efficiency technology from the drawing board to the sky.

On Wednesday, NASA proffered an award to The Boeing Company for its Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project. This endeavor is aimed at creating a new generation of eco-friendly single-aisle planes. Through a Funded Space Act Agreement, Boeing will partner up with NASA to construct and test the demonstrator aircraft before taking it airborne in order to assess its ability to reduce emissions.

Over the course of seven years, NASA will be contributing a substantial sum of $425 million. The remainder needed for this agreement is estimated at around $725 million which will come from the company itself and its partners alike. Furthermore, there are also plans to bring in technical expertise and facilities as part of this arrangement with NASA.

“Since the beginning, NASA has been with you when you fly. NASA has dared to go farther, faster, higher. And in doing so, NASA has made aviation more sustainable and dependable. It is in our DNA,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “It’s our goal that NASA’s partnership with Boeing to produce and test a full-scale demonstrator will help lead to future commercial airliners that are more fuel efficient, with benefits to the environment, the commercial aviation industry, and to passengers worldwide. If we are successful, we may see these technologies in planes that the public takes to the skies in the 2030s.”

Single-aisle aircraft are the backbone of many airline fleets, and because they fly so much, account for nearly half of all aviation emissions. To ensure that the future generations of single-aisles incorporating advanced technologies and designs can enter into service in the 2030s, NASA is working hard on completing tests by late 2020s. This project promises to provide a valuable insight which will shape industry decisions significantly.

By leveraging the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project, NASA and Boeing will join forces to construct a prototype Transonic Truss-Braced Wing aircraft and test its performance. This model features long, slim wings secured by diagonal struts — resulting in improved fuel economy due to decreased drag resistance. In comparison to traditional airliners, this design offers notable gains that could drastically reduce fuel consumption while providing enhanced flight efficiency.

“NASA is working toward an ambitious goal of developing game-changing technologies to reduce aviation energy use and emissions over the coming decades toward an aviation community goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” said Bob Pearce, NASA associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “The Transonic Truss-Braced Wing is the kind of transformative concept and investment we will need to meet those challenges and, critically, the technologies demonstrated in this project have a clear and viable path to informing the next generation of single-aisle aircraft, benefiting everyone that uses the air transportation system.”

NASA’s goal is that the technology flown on the demonstrator aircraft, when combined with other advancements in propulsion systems, materials, and systems architecture, would result in fuel consumption and emissions reductions of up to 30% relative to today’s most efficient single-aisle aircraft, depending on the mission. Through separate efforts, NASA has worked with Boeing and other industry partners on advanced sustainable aviation concepts, including the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing concept.

“We’re honored to continue our partnership with NASA and to demonstrate technology that significantly improves aerodynamic efficiency resulting in substantially lower fuel burn and emissions,” said Todd Citron, Boeing chief technology officer. “Boeing has been advancing a multipronged sustainability strategy, including fleet renewal, operational efficiency, renewable energy, and advanced technologies to support the U.S. Aviation Climate Action Plan and meet the industry objective of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Sustainable Flight Demonstrator builds on more than a decade of NASA, Boeing, and our industry partners’ investments to help achieve these objectives.”

Through the new Funds Space Act agreement, NASA is taking advantage of Boeing’s industry knowledge and experience by allowing them to provide a technical plan for their proposal. In addition,NASA will grant access to its aeronautics resources and proficiency in exchange for ground and flight data that can be used to ascertain if the airframe design as well as corresponding technologies are valid. However, it should be noted that NASA does not procure an aircraft or any other hardware related items from this arrangement.

As a crucial part of the Sustainable Flight National Partnership, the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator is devoted to advancing new sustainable aviation technologies. This project falls under NASA’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program and plays an instrumental role in helping America reach net-zero carbon emissions from air travel by 2050 — as outlined in the White House’s US Aviation Climate Action Plan and also advocated for at International Civil Aviation Organization level.

What’s a Transonic Truss Braced Wing?

What wasn’t clear from the press release was how this whole thing works. On the surface, you’d probably think that adding something under the wings would cause problems for drag. But, the bracing helps the design have strength despite being very long with a low profile. This is known as a “high aspect ratio wing.”

The advantage to a high aspect ratio wing is that it increases the lift to drag ratio, so these long, skinny wings (somewhat like a glider) have much better fuel efficiency. But, being so long and skinny means they’re usually only used on small aircraft so they won’t stress the wing too much. By adding bracing, these wings can carry the heavier weight of a larger passenger aircraft.

Combined with some improved engine technologies, the final design should make for much more fuel efficient flight. Designs like this could even help make flight efficient enough for more electric aviation in the future.

Featured image provided by Boeing and NASA.


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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

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