A new era of aircraft technology is on its way, with a focus on energy efficiency and economic impact. The aerospace industry is continuously adopting innovative technologies, but there’s a new interest in exploring alternative propulsion systems and energy sources.
This new interest is giving aircraft engineers an opportunity to develop cutting-edge technology that will not only drastically cut fuel usage, but also open up potential new markets and business opportunities.
NASA is working with the aviation industry on the development of unique vehicle concepts that will use different fuselage shapes. They will be longer, skinner, with more blended wings. They are also using innovative materials and components. Airplanes are typically made of aluminum or steel, which has a 90% recycled content, making it the most recycled material on the planet. These new materials and components will provide better efficiency with fewer emissions and less noise.
“I feel we are at a tipping point in commercial aviation,” says Jim Heidmann, manager of NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technology Project (AATT). “We are exploring and developing game-changing technologies and concepts for aircraft and propulsion systems that can dramatically improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact and accelerate the introduction of new aircraft.”
Through NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative, the development of a series of experimental planes (X-planes) is being tested and hopefully validated. These X-planes will achieve the agency’s goal levels for fuel consumption, emissions, and noise.
The Single-aisle Turboelectric AiRCraft with an Aft Boundary-Layer (STARC-ABL) will allow the X-planes to use the air flowing along the fuselage to reduce fuel consumption. With 24 million flight hours being logged by aviation aircrafts every year, there is a big concern with harmful emissions.
In a traditional airplane, the boundary layer consists of slow-moving air that clings to and flows along the fuselage. This layer helps to reduce friction as it flows off the rear of the aircraft. However, this layer also breaks up into turbulence. The new concept would consists of a giant ducted fan that goes around the stern of the fuselage, allowing it to collect the boundary layer and accelerate it to turn into thrust.
According to NASA, with this new technology, the plane’s engines will use 10% less fuel. NASA is working with industry and academic leaders to turn this idea into reality. The agency issues grants to the University of Georgia, Boeing, and Liberty Works with ES Aero to begin developing working designs using the STARC-ABL concept.
Meanwhile, other X-place concepts will be explored during a year-long study to create a next generation, turboelectric, or hybrid aircraft concept. These concepts could be implemented and running within 20 years and use less fuel, generate less noise, and produce fewer emissions.