NASA Aeronautics In 2016: Year In Review Featured New and Exciting Technologies

By  //  December 22, 2016

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A supercomputer-generated visualization of the pressure field over a conceptual design of the Quiet Supersonic Technology demonstrator, or QueSST. (NASA Image)

(NASA) – The beginning of an historic new era of X-planes research; the continuing development of trailblazing green aviation technologies; and building an expanding experience base testing new air traffic management technologies.

This and so much more was the story of NASA Aeronautics in 2016.

“I’m proud of the accomplishments we made this past year as our aeronautical innovators once again showed why the U.S. remains the world’s leader in aviation research,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA’s associate administrator for aeronautics.

“We continued to make progress developing technology that will allow aircraft to burn less fuel, reduce emissions and fly more quietly, while finding ways to make air traffic management more efficient and safe amid increasing numbers and types of aircraft,” Shin said.

Researchers in “drone mission control” monitor the progress of drones in simultaneous flight at six test sites during an April field demonstration. (NASA Image)

The New Year rang in with a nod to NASA’s rich aeronautical research heritage when experimental airplanes – X-planes – of all shapes and sizes first pushed the boundaries of flight in the air and at the edge of space during the dawn of the jet age.

Based on a long-range research plan for aeronautics research published in 2015 – a plan that directly responded to industry needs amid global trends and emerging technologies – NASA in 2016 introduced a 10-year initiative that would see X-planes return to the sky.

New Aviation Horizons is all about designing, building and flying several X-planes to demonstrate key green aviation technologies and accelerate their adoption by industry.

Officials got the X-plane ball rolling in February when NASA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company of Palmdale, California, to come up with an initial design concept that could lead to the return of supersonic flight to the commercial marketplace.

The preliminary design – known as Quiet Supersonic Technology, or QueSST – is the first step toward building an X-plane that will demonstrate new ways to shape an aircraft so that when it’s flying faster than the speed of sound it won’t generate an annoying sonic boom. The design is due in 2017.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden (center) and Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (right) tour the American Airlines ramp tower at Charlotte Douglas International Airport following the ATD-2 lab dedication in June. (NASA Image)

April showers didn’t get in the way of a demonstration of NASA’s evolving unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management (UTM) research platform.

In what was the first and largest demonstration of its kind to date, 22 drones flew at the same time as NASA engineers and operators from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assessed rural operations from test sites spread around the country.

As the summer months heated up, so did UAS-related research operations, this time on a larger scale by involving NASA’s Ikhana aircraft.

Beginning in June, a series of 19 flight tests staged from Armstrong Flight Research Center in California took place over a nine-week period. The flights tested detect-and-avoid algorithms developed by NASA, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., Honeywell, and other industry partners.

The Dzyne Technologies’ regional jet-sized blended wing body design was one of five concepts by different companies awarded NASA contracts to define what it would take to make them into demonstrator X-planes. (DZYNE Tech. Image)

Also in June, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden had the honor of publicly revealing the official number designation and nickname of the agency’s first X-plane in a decade – the X-57 Maxwell, a general aviation-sized airplane equipped with 14 propellers.

The propellers will be integrated into the forward leading edge of the experimental airplane’s wing, and each will be independently powered by its own electric motor. The X-57 will study the feasibility and benefits of an all-electric airplane, with its first flight targeted for March 2018.

NASA Aeronautics wasn’t finished making news yet in June.

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As the countdown to the long Independence Day weekend began, Bolden, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and representatives from the FAA, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, American Airlines, and the Charlotte Douglas International Airport gathered in North Carolina for a ribbon cutting.

Now open for business at the Charlotte airport: a new airspace technology demonstration laboratory that will support a five-year test project aimed to streamline the arrival and departure of aircraft, and improve surface operations to increase safety and efficiency while reducing fuel use in our nation’s airspace system.

Then in July, NASA’s innovative Transformative Aeronautics Concepts program, which selects its projects by subjecting researchers to a “Shark Tank-like” interview, selected five teams for two-year studies to determine if their “off the wall” ideas for new green aviation technologies are feasible to pursue or not.

These studies include research in alternative fuel cells; using 3-D printing to increase electric motor output; the use of lithium-air batteries for energy storage; new mechanisms for changing the shape of an aircraft wing in flight; and the use of a lightweight material called aerogel in the design and development of aircraft antenna.

When students of all ages returned to school in September to see old friends and make new ones, that theme of friendship was echoed as NASA’s top officials signed two collaborative international agreements to further aeronautics research.

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The first, between NASA and the Chinese Aeronautical Establishment, will advance air transportation automation for U.S. and Chinese aviation operations in China. The second, between NASA and France’s Office National d’Etudes et de Recherches Aerospatiales, focuses on mitigating the effects of civil air transportation noise.

There were no tricks, only treats, as October provided NASA Aeronautics with at least two highlights of note.

The first involved the awarding of six-month X-plane-related contracts to four companies, who will each define the technical approach, schedule, and cost for one or more large-scale, subsonic X-plane concepts that, if further pursued, could begin flying no later than 2021.

The companies are Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation of Manassas, Virginia; Dzyne Technologies Incorporated of Fairfax, Virginia; Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company of Ft. Worth, Texas; and The Boeing Company of Hazelwood, Missouri.

For the second highlight, NASA’s UTM research platform for safe operations of small drones took to the desert.

This time, four drones were flown from Reno-Stead Airport in Reno, Nevada, in tests to determine how well UTM provided information about potential flight hazards to ground-based pilots as they remotely flew their drones beyond line of sight.

Finally, as the holidays in November and December approached, with all their festive distractions and errands to run, NASA’s aeronautical research programs and projects stayed focused, achieving important milestones including:

• Conducting wind-tunnel tests at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland on new jet engine technology that could power innovative subsonic commercial airliners of the future.

• Testing new cockpit displays at NASA Armstrong that enable pilots flying faster-than-sound airplanes to easily visualize exactly where their sonic booms are hitting the ground.

• Studying emerging composite material manufacturing methods at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California to build and demonstrate an ultra-light wing capable of changing shape as needed during flight.

• Preparing for a series of air traffic management technology demonstrations in 2017 that promises to safely increase the number of airplanes that can land on the same runway at busy airports by more precisely managing the space between each aircraft on approach.

“There’s no doubt we had a very productive year in 2016, but when it comes to 2017, as the saying goes, ‘The best is yet to come!’” Shin said.