NASA's tossing up this idea of planes becoming giant, flying batteries

What could possibly go wrong? Picture: NASA

A giant, flying battery, self-healing power cables and doing away with ground-based testing altogether are on the table as NASA moves to re-imagine the future of flight.

As part of its new Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) project, NASA arranged 17 teams of aeronautical innovators and challenged them in a “pitch day”.

The ideas ranged from wild to thought-provoking.

“We’re going to ask the questions and see if these ideas are feasible or not,” Doug Rohn, NASA’s manager for the program said. “It just might be that it’s not feasible, but that’s OK.”

Rohn, who said he considered himself “an early stage angel investor”, headed a panel of NASA managers as the engineers came forward with their concepts.

Six teams got the nod for funding to further explore their concepts. Rohn said NASA’s return on investment would not be money, but “knowledge and potential solutions to future challenges in aviation”.

Here are the winners:

Multifunctional Structures with Energy Storage
A challenge with electric propulsion is the mass (volume and weight) of the batteries that must be carried inside the aircraft. But what if the aircraft structure itself could serve as the battery? Advances in materials, chemistry and nanotechnology might make this possible.

Autonomy Operating System for UAVs
A concern about UAVs is how their internal logic/software might respond to unforeseen situations – such as a sudden worsening of weather, or another aircraft flying too close – that would prompt the need for a sudden change in its programmed course and behavior. The question is can advances in programming and artificial intelligence result in making it possible for a UAV to respond to those situations on its own, without remote human interaction, in ways that are as sure and predictable as would be made by a certified human pilot?

Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerostructure Technologies
Could advances in technologies be combined such that super strong, lightweight composite structures also are able to be flexible and change their shapes as needed during a flight?

Digital twin. Picture: NASA

Digital Twin
Can a computer model be built that accurately simulates and predicts how an aircraft or its individual components are affected by aging and ongoing operations such that a “digital twin” of a particular airplane can be created? This could help predict when problems might arise in order to prevent them from developing.

High Voltage Hybrid Electric Propulsion
How to make an electric propulsion system on airliners, rather than burning fuel, as efficient and lightweight as possible? It will help to have a power distribution system featuring “self-healing” insulation. If any deterioration in a high voltage electrical line begins, the resulting exposure of the electricity to chemicals bonded in the insulation would automatically repair the line – reducing in-flight problems and costly ground maintenance.

Learn to Fly
Historically, the process for designing, building, testing and certifying new aircraft for flight can take years and cost a lot of money. But are we advanced enough in our understanding of flight and the use of computer tools where we can safely enable new airplane designs to be more rapidly flown by skipping ground-based testing?

The winners were decided on the basis of who best answered two key questions NASA is asking itself when it comes to future aeronautical design. The first is self-explanatory – “Can we demonstrate an aviation system with maximum efficiency and minimal environmental impact?”

The second is a little more wide-ranging – “Demonstrate the feasibility for urgent medical transportation from the wilderness of Alaska to the Mayo Clinic without human interaction.”

Rohn said in regard to the second question, if teams came up with a solution, there was a great likelihood the technologies needed to solve the problem could be applied practically across the globe.

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