Industry Weighs in on Green Aviation Tech

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A New Chapter

A new chapter in industry-government collaboration may open if the NASA proposal known as New Aviation Horizons (NAH) is approved by Congress. The NAH initiative would be a decade-long effort to design, build and fly a variety of flight demonstration vehicles, experimental aircraft called “X-planes.” Incorporated into X-plane designs will be a variety of green-aviation technologies from the ERA project, that, if adopted by the aviation community, could save the airline industry $255 billion during the first 25 years after being put into service.

These 21st century X-planes would typically be about half-scale of a production aircraft, although some may be smaller or larger, and are likely to be piloted. Design and build would take several years, with vehicles going to flight starting around 2020, depending on funding. The 10-year plan also includes major field tests in collaboration with airlines, airports, and the FAA.

“The NASA X-plane program is a great idea,” said Pratt & Whitney’s Epstein. “It gets people thinking about different approaches. That’s as much a valuable contribution as some of the technology maturation.”

TIM presenters praised NASA Aeronautics’ approach to a longer-term budget request that, by outlining funding requirements beyond just the next fiscal year, makes the case for amped-up research monies that will spur aviation transformation. Should the 10-year outlay be approved, the boost would come as very good news, according to Joseph Doychak, program manager for jet noise reduction at the Office of Naval Research. The proposed increase “is exactly what the nation needs,” he said. “We’re in this together, across all aviation.”

No Guarantees

Green innovations couldn’t come at a more auspicious time, given the projected growth in air travel within the next 20 years. By 2034, according to a summary of figures compiled from statistics collected by the International Air Transport Association, the Air Transport Action Group and Boeing, the number of passenger trips will more than double, from 3.3 billion to 7 billion. In addition, the number of jobs connected to the aviation industry is projected to soar by roughly 85%, from 58 million to 105 million.

To accommodate demand, the global new-aircraft fleet will need to balloon to more than 36,000 vehicles: a market alone that would represent a $5 trillion investment. Most of the growth in airplane numbers will come in Asia, followed by North America and Europe.

Still, no green-aviation advances are assured of automatic adoption. Even if a specific technology proves its mettle, successfully meeting all milestones, and proves to be reliable and robust, innovation has to demonstrate its economic worth over time before it is incorporated industry-wide.

“We don’t want to be stuck with a product no one is willing to write a check for,” said Boeing’s Hussain. “We try to create a positive business case. And we have to balance all of these competing requirements.”

Helping to analyze tradeoffs is an aeronautics “dashboard” developed for NASA by the Georgia Tech Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory. Vehicle concepts from large to small were modeled, and in excess of 80 specific technologies assessed for their interrelationships.

Dr. Dimitri Mavris, Georgia Tech’s Boeing professor of advanced aerospace systems analysis, said that the dashboard enables policymakers to gauge system impacts depending on what concepts are adopted and what designs are chosen. Also taken into consideration are how changes affect airports and eventually ripple throughout an entire air fleet.

Mavris cautioned that switching over from legacy to the latest is not a simple matter. There is a sizeable lag between technology introduction and widespread incorporation. The production-line shift to new aircraft requires an average of four years to complete, and years more can pass before new aircraft comprise the majority of a given airline’s operational fleet.

Pratt & Whitney’s Epstein noted that the value proposition remains front and center for aeronautical firms. “Companies have products to sell,” he said. “The industry today is much more risk-adverse. Refinements have to be less risky.”

Do something that companies find valuable, Epstein asserted – say, develop one or more technologies that would quiet airplane noise so much that takeoffs and landings could be routinely scheduled very late at night and into very early morning – and the potential for additional revenue would likely prove irresistible.

NASA is well aware of the industry’s concerns and motivations, and ensures that its research is relevant but also effective in meeting its own ambitious environmental goals. Groups like the Aeronautics Research and Technology Roundtable, established by NASA, include members from industry and other government agencies who routinely provide feedback and insight to NASA aeronautics leadership.

“Success begets success,” agreed Brad Belcher, Rolls-Royce Corporation program director for U.S. civil research and technology. “We have to hit the ground running and prove the aeronautics investment is worth it.”



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