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NASA Looks to Prove Feasibility in Futuristic Aviation Initiatives

By Juliet Van Wagenen | June 26, 2015
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[Avionics Today 06-26-2015] NASA has green-lit efforts to study six transformative projects that aim to bolster our understanding of new technological capabilities within the realm of aviation. The six ideas were chosen from a total pool of 17  proposals from industry experts and range from environmentally friendly electric propulsion, to technology that may expand autonomy for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in civil airspace. Despite the wide range of areas studied in the projects, each set out to field futuristic ideas that would, hopefully, transform the aviation landscape.

Rendering of the Digital Twin project pursued by NASA researchers as part of an initiative to pursue futuristic ideas
Rendering of the Digital Twin project pursued by NASA researchers as part of an initiative to pursue futuristic ideas. Photo: NASA

“We put out a call within our organization to answer the big questions in aviation, which generated the six proposals, because that’s what we’re all about. We want to answer those questions and generate knowledge that ultimately could find a way to transform aviation so we can leap ahead and look at next generation technologies,” said Doug Rohn, NASA’s manager for the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program within the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD).

Teams presented their ideas before a panel of NASA managers, including Rohn, and essentially competed for the opportunity to fund and field their ideas, ideas that had to answer one of two fundamentally different questions: “Can we demonstrate an aviation system with maximum efficiency and minimal environmental impact?” and “Can we demonstrate the feasibility for urgent medical transportation from the wilderness of Alaska to the Mayo Clinic without human interaction?”

“The first question was a more system view about how you could, from cradle to grave, make a more efficient system, and some of these proposals may not answer that complete question but the proposal would answer a chunk of the question,” explained Rohn.

The second question is notably more specific and Rohn notes that none of the selected projects directly address the particular challenges to solve this specific issue, but that the difficulties of operating in Alaska, where there is a remarkable lack of ground infrastructure, could help spur innovative thinking.

“The wilds of Alaska to the Mayo Clinic, there is nothing magic about it, we could have chosen anywhere with similar circumstances,” said Rohn. “The whole idea was to set a reference one could look at because we asked to do it without human intervention and it kind of drives out some of these problems in technology and we can get at autonomy, we can get at doing things differently, because this is a different kind of mission that really just encourages folks to innovate.”

While all six have the potential to impact aviation in enormous ways, or prove the opposite, three have the prospective to impact the avionics industry most profoundly.

Artificially Intelligent UAVs
A mission to address sense-and-avoid technology for UAS, a pressing issue when it comes to integrating the systems into airspace, is among the chosen proposals. The research attempts to address how the internal logic and software of a UAV might respond to an unforeseen situation that would prompt the UAV to change its course or behavior suddenly and unexpectedly, such as severe weather or interaction with another aircraft in airspace. Researchers are looking to answer the question about whether or not advances in programming and artificial intelligence could make it easier for UAVs to respond without human intervention.

“This project looks to address whether a UAV can safely and reliably fly as a first class vehicle in normal airspace. We’re looking for an architecture or a set of modules that could make a UAV in a cross-effective way to certify that software,” explained Rohn.

“What the team is proposing to do is to build some certifiable software built on software used on a spacecraft that has similar autonomy. They are looking to build an architecture, protocols, a way to plug modules to handle the integration of all of the control features that are needed along with some artificial intelligence,” said Rohn. Ultimately, that team has set out to create a pilot in a box.”

Skip the Ground Testing
Another initiative sets out to field whether manufacturers can develop new aircraft with little or no ground-based testing, a prospect that could save time and resources in the process.

“The analogy we use for this project is pushing the baby bird out of the nest,” said Rohn. “The new aircraft that we’re imagining aren’t going to look like current aircraft but we know that they have wings, controls, software, etc. What we’re trying to do is to merge some of our learning, take machine learning technologies and real-time modeling that we do on the flight dynamics of the aircraft, merge that with some of the design processes. With this, we could envision a day when the designer of an airplane could merge all those things together, the flight dynamics, the actuators, a bit of machine learning, build a small-scale or rapid prototype glider, carry it to the top of the tower and drop it as a replacement for larger prototypes.”

Rohn notes that when developing a new aircraft, a manufacturer would still have to address all the flight testing necessary to certify the aircraft, but that some of the ground-based tests could potentially be combined, merged or eliminated to make the process more efficient.

“It’s a game-changer for the designers, who, by eliminating some ground-based testing or incorporating some of the machine learning or real-time dynamics, can shake out new ideas much faster.”

Designing a “Digital Twin”
This project aims to build a computer model that can accurately simulate and predict how the components of the airplane are affected by aging, as well as keep track of how the systems age.

“This is a question of expanding the design space and accelerating design while still maintaining safety reliability,” said Rohn, noting that the concept itself isn’t new, but that the Air Force Research Lab and others have discussed the concept for years.

“When the aircraft is designed there is a lot of uncertainties, the designer has specifications and has requirements but there are uncertainties as to what the real flight loads really are, what the material properties really are, it’s not a single number there’s a distribution of those properties. What we’re trying to do here is to enable very high fidelity model of both the properties and the flight loads the airplane sees throughout the service life of the aircraft so that those uncertainties are less uncertain,” he said.

The twin will help maintenance operations but also help manufacturers design a better aircraft in the future, as they’ll have a representation during the operation and service life.

Moving forward, while most programs at NASA usually operate on a 3 to 5 year plan, these six projects will run for an estimated 2 to 2.5 years as researchers are simply attempting to prove feasibility of the technology, as opposed to bringing any new technology to term.

“The ones that aren’t feasible, that’s actually good as well because we learn something, we develop that knowledge and plug it back into our knowledge base for future use,” said Rohn. “The ones that are feasible, our process is that we see how it will fit into our broader strategic plan, where our research needs to head and then we make a decision.”

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