NASA research benefits airlines

The nation´s airlines could realize more than USD 250 billion dollars in savings in the near future thanks to green-related technologies developed and refined by NASA´s aeronautics researchers during the past six years, the agency said.

These new technologies, developed under the purview of NASA´s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, could cut airline fuel use in half, pollution by 75 percent and noise to nearly one-eighth of today´s levels.

Created in 2009 and completed in 2015, ERA´s mission was to explore and document the feasibility, benefits and technical risk of inventive vehicle concepts and enabling technologies that would reduce aviation´s impact on the environment. Project researchers focused on eight major integrated technology demonstrations falling into three categories — airframe technology, propulsion technology and vehicle systems integration.

By the time ERA officially concluded its six-year run, NASA had invested more than USD 400 million, with another USD 250 million in-kind resources invested by industry partners who were involved in ERA from the start.

Integrated technology demonstrations included:

Tiny embedded nozzles blowing air over the surface of an airplane´s vertical tail fin showed that future aircraft could safely be designed with smaller tails, reducing weight and drag. This technology was tested using Boeing´s ecoDemonstrator 757 flying laboratory. Also flown was a test of surface coatings designed to minimize drag caused by bug residue building up on the wing´s leading edge.

NASA developed a new process for stitching together large sections of lightweight composite materials to create damage-tolerant structures that could be used in building uniquely shaped future aircraft that weighed as much as 20 percent less than a similar all-metal aircraft.

Teaming with the Air Force Research Laboratory and FlexSys Inc. of Ann Arbor, Michigan, NASA successfully tested a radical new morphing wing technology that allows an aircraft to seamlessly extend its flaps, leaving no drag-inducing, noise-enhancing gaps for air to flow through. FlexSys and Aviation Partners of Seattle already have announced plans to commercialize this technology.

As part of the closeout work for the ERA project, information and results regarding each of these technology demonstrations were categorized and stored for future access and use by the aerospace industry, and will be discussed at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Sci-Tech Conference in San Diego this week.