For most people, NASA is synonymous with space exploration, but the agency also has a long history of pushing the boundaries of flight below the Kármán line.
Beginning in the early 1940s, NASA (called NACA at the time) launched an aviation program for research on experimental aircraft known as X-planes. At least 50 X-planes have been developed to date, but due to funding woes the program has slowed in the new millennium. Last February, NASA announced a budget increase for the X-plane program, which followed on the heels of the creation of the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program (TACP) a year and a half earlier.
In 2015, NASA announced that it would be funding six experimental aviation projectsas part of TACP. On Friday, the agency added five new projects to the list in a bid to revolutionize terrestrial air travel by making flying quiet and economical while lowering the aviation industry’s environmental impact.
The announcement came after two days of presentations from researchers at NASA’s facilities in Ohio, California and Virginia.
One of the most promising and radical ideas is FUELEAP, a new kind of fuel cell that would electrically power general aviation aircraft (basically all non-scheduled planes, from gliders to personal jets). The fuel cells that are normally used by NASA spacecraft combine hydrogen and oxygen which are stored as super cold liquids onboard the craft—an expensive and bulky arrangement that wouldn’t work on-board general aviation planes. This new fuel cell would pull oxygen from the air and then combine it with hydrogen from normal aviation gas to generate electricity in a more efficient and environmentally friendly manner.
Other ideas included: a hyper-efficient lithium oxygen batteries which would enable long range, electrically-powered flights; wings that are capable of adjusting their length in mid-flight; a new type of electric motor; and a satellite-enabled antenna which would greatly increase the potential for commercial drone flights by eliminating the need for line of sight radio contact with ground stations.
These ideas are all pretty wild and have the potential to revolutionize the way we fly, but whether they will ever actually work is a matter of debate.
“Is failure an option?” asked Doug Rohn, the TACP manager. “It depends on your definition of failure. We’re going to ask the questions and see if these ideas are feasible or not. A successful feasibility assessment may determine the concept won’t work.”