The year 2014 brought a number of first-time activities to the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. These included support of the first Orion flight test using the agency’s Ikhana unmanned aircraft system and the first flight of a number of new science instruments.
Also marked were the first overseas deployments for the Ikhana and Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, the first flight of the remotely-piloted X-56, the Flight Loads Laboratory’s testing of the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, or HIAD system, celebration of the FLL’s 50th anniversary and the renaming of the center after Neil A. Armstrong.
Eighteen modified and unique aircraft flew 850 sorties totaling more than 2,500 accident-free science and research hours.
Never satisfied with past achievements, NASA Armstrong managers provided employees with snapshots of 2015 at a recent town hall that forecast another slate of first flights, groundbreaking research and science missions.
Joe Piotrowski, who leads NASA Armstrong’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said work at the center illustrates how NASA innovations are with the public when they fly.
Projects at the center support the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate focuses in key areas such as safe and efficient growth in global aircraft operations and innovations in commercial supersonic aircraft. Also included is technology development for enhancing fuel efficiency, reducing environmental impacts and leveraging new technologies to enhance air traffic control, Piotrowski explained.
Efforts continue in the high-speed project area to better understand people’s reactions to sonic boom levels and characteristics. NASA Armstrong engineers will use F-15 and F-18 aircraft in this research and make the information available for future supersonic aircraft design.
“We are looking at how in 15 years we can make supersonic commercial flight a reality,” Piotrowski said.
Work on the Fixed Wing Project, which includes ultra efficient commercial vehicles, continues to develop and validate technologies to improve fuel efficiency and reduce environmental impact.
For example, the X-56 aircraft will be used to look at long, light-weight and flexible wings, similar to glider wings. The idea is to reduce the weight of the aircraft to decrease fuel consumption and obtain better performance out of the aircraft, Piotrowski said.
The Active Compliant Trailing Edge work on one of the agency’s Gulfstream III aircraft has a slate of 34 flights planned for 2015. Traditional flaps have gaps in between the flight-control surfaces. The ACTE flap doesn’t have gaps and could decrease noise, while increasing fuel efficiency, Piotrowski said.
Engineers and technicians designed and fabricated a test stand this year that can be used to test hybrid electric engine technologies for future use in the aviation industry. Fuel efficiency and significant reductions in emissions are two of the key payoffs.
“We have electric cars, why can’t we have electric airplanes?” Piotrowski asked.
Regarding flight safety, the Vehicle System Safety Technology project is a real-time system-wide safety assurance concept of developing aircraft systems that detect and display problems before they become a safety issue.
As part of this effort, NASA Armstrong researchers, teaming with the 418th Flight Test Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, are scheduled in 2015 to conduct a two-week ground engine test on a C-17, Piotrowski said. The C-17, equipped with sensors developed by the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, will monitor the effects of volcanic ash on engine health. The goal is an early warning system to determine if an engine has degraded to point of failure.
The final part of Piotrowski’s presentation focused on the Unmanned Aircraft Systems integration in the National Airspace System, or UAS in the NAS. The project strives to develop autonomous systems that are in harmony with humans and other UAS. This is a continuing effort to develop practices, procedures and information for using UAS in the NAS with commercial aircraft and expand abilities to safely fly closer to the ground, he explained.
A recent simulation between Armstrong and NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, looked at an air traffic control scenario where UAS and commercial aircraft were flying in the NAS, which has never happened before in simulation or actual practice, he added.
“We are providing data to the Federal Aviation Administration,” Piotrowski said. “In the future a commercial airliner could be landing with a Global Hawk right behind it. That’s kind of far out, but that’s the type of research we do here – we look forward and give data to decision makers to make those big leaps.”
The information that NASA provides will help the FAA develop rules and procedures to enable UAS to fly in the same airspace as commercial aircraft. It could open the door to new opportunities for UAS from monitoring crops and anticipating natural disasters to delivering food and goods to residential neighborhoods.