NASA is hitting the drawing board for revamping their current aircrafts to make better fuel-driven machines to be built by the year 2025.

Teams from The Boeing Company in Huntington Beach, California, Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, California, and Northrop Grumman in El Segundo, California have come together and spent the last year studying how to reach the goals of NASA to build and develop a technology that will allow any forms of future aircrafts to use up fifty percent less fuel that current aircrafts that they have been using since 1998. They are also exploring how to integrate 75 percent fewer harmful emissions, and how to ultimately shrink the size of any geographic areas that are affected by excessive airport noise by 83 percent in total.

These flying machines, which they dub as “leaner and greener” are on tap for the year 2025. The three industry teams are currently under contract to the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project.

“The real challenge is we want to accomplish all these things simultaneously,” said ERA project manager Fay Collier in their press release. “It’s never been done before. We looked at some very difficult metrics and tried to push all those metrics down at the same time.”

The three teams have been awarded just under $11 million by NASA to put this challenge to work. They are assessing what kinds of aircraft designs and technologies could help reach the goals for the fuel use, emissions, and noise. The companies have just given NASA their results.

They are currently looking through the studies and seeing what their next steps are.

The Boeing Company’s advanced aircraft concept is built around the company’s signature blended wing body design that is also used in the sub-scale remotely piloted X-48. The X-48 has has been both wind tunnel tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center, as well as flown at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. A notable aspect of these design, compared to the others and the current airplanes that are used, is the placement of its Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines. These engines are placed on top of the plane’s back end, and flanked by two vertical tails to shield people on the ground from engine noise. In addition to the different placement of the engines, the aircraft also features an advanced lightweight, damage tolerant, composite structure; various technologies for reducing airframe noise; advanced flight controls; hybrid laminar flow control, which is a design to help reduce the amount of drag; and long-span wings which improve fuel efficiency.

Conversely, Lockheed Martin explored the aircraft from a different angle. The team proposed a completely different design, including box wings, which means the front wing is mounted on the lower belly of the plane and is joined at the tips to an aft wing mounted on top of the plane. The crew at Martin have studied the box wing concept for three decades, but has not put anything into fruition as they have been waiting for lightweight composite materials, landing gear technologies, hybrid laminar flow and other tools to make it a viable configuration. The proposal combines the unique design with a Rolls Royce Liberty Works Ultra Fan Engine, which has a bypass ratio that is approximately five times greater than current engines, spanning over current limits of turbofan technology.

The third company, Northrop Grumman, took some of their company history, aiming for the previous 1930s and 40s designs, which a flying wing reminiscent of its B-2 aircraft. The concept includes four high-bypass engines, provided by Rolls Royce and embedded in the upper surface of the aerodynamically efficient wing would provide noise shielding. Because of the company’s expertise in building planes without the benefit of a stabilizing tail, this ideally would be transferred to the commercial airline market. Their version of the aircraft also incorporates advanced composite materials and engine and swept wing laminar flow control technologies.

The three studies have revealed that though NASA’s three goals (to reduce emissions, fuel consumption, and noise), are doable but definitely a challenge. Though the three preliminary designs from The Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman have all met the goal of reducing emissions of nitrogen oxides by 50 percent, the other two challenges (noise and fuel consumption) are still under research. They did have a reduction in fuel consumption (about fifty percent), but the noise aspect isn’t yet under control.

“All of the teams have done really great work during this conceptual design study,” say Mark Mangelsdorf, ERA Project chief engineer. “Their results make me excited about how interesting and different the airplanes on the airport ramp could look in 20 years. Another great result of the study is that they have really helped us focus where to invest our research dollars over the next few years,” he said.

NASA’s ERA project officials do believe that all of the goals can be met if small gains in noise and fuel consumption reduction can be achieved, in addition to those projected in the industry studies. The results of the three tests have brought forth research and conclusions on the current technology and design hurdles that airline manufacturers are facing in trying to design these leaner, greener flying machines. In turn, this will ultimately help guide NASA’s environmentally responsible aviation investment strategy for the second half of its six-year project.

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