Since Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first controlled, sustained, heavier-than-air human flight in 1903, numerous inventors over the ages have continuously advanced the concept of flying with bigger, better and more sophisticated airplane models.
Today, although the prospect of a new, revolutionary type of aircraft to take flight into the wide open skies may be small, NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center’s new energy efficient airplane shows that the future of aviation is as wide and bright as the skies.
The concept behind this new energy-efficient aircraft is simple.
Instead of a fossil fuel based engine mounted on the bottom of each airplane wing, there are 18 electric motors lined on the wing’s leading edge from one end to the other.
However, the switch to electric propulsion is not going to be as simple.
Switching to an alternative propulsion system requires new aircraft designs, as well as components that will support it including lightweight machinery, and electrical systems.
This electric plane was conceived as part of an experimental NASA project called LeapTech.
LeapTech started in 2014 to test the viability of electric propulsion technologies within airplanes.
Acting on NASA’s charge, LeapTech envisions that a significant portion of the aircraft industry can be operated by electric-power alone within the next decade.
General aviation aircraft will be the first to transition from fossil-fuel based engines to electric propulsion, followed by larger commercial jets and other types of transport planes in the long-term.
NASA’s research behind the electric plane, will lead to further technology upgrades intended to minimize pollution from aircraft.
For example, the research that is being developed currently may well lead to aircraft with lighter wings that quickly changes shape in order to maximize operational efficiency when the aircraft encounters turbulence. Lighter aircraft wings help to conserve energy as they are able to help the plane navigate through turbulent air.
Another conceptual technology is battery-powered planes. These planes are more energy-efficient and less-polluting that conventional planes.
Although airlines have made airplane travel far more energy efficient in terms of what it takes to fly a passenger one mile, compared to what it was in the 1960s, the tremendous growth of the aviation industry also offsets the gains made in energy-efficiency.
Today, the U.S. aviation industry carries over 700 million passengers annually. By making every trip 30 percent more energy efficient would indicate that the U.S. does not plan to step back from the gains that we have made. This push in redesigning planes for the sake of combatting climate change resonates with our national and global priorities.
The Environmental Protection Agency has begun developing a policy regulating greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft, and the International Civil Aviation Organization has put reducing aircraft emissions at the top of their agenda.