NASA focuses on six thrusts—from autonomy to supersonics—in pursuit of leaps in aeronautics
As refocuses its aeronautics research on key challenges facing aviation, its inspiration is coming from two non-aerospace entities—Eastman Kodak and Otis Elevator.
Together their divergent stories convinced the agency's associate administrator for aeronautics, Jaiwon Shin, thatneeded a vision to ensure its aviation research continues to lead the world—and benefit industry.
The new strategy aligns aeronautics research with six thrusts shaped to help industry respond to three global “megadrivers”: growing demand for mobility; severe challenges to sustainability; and technology developments in information, communication and automation. It is a vision intended to avoid the complacency that doomed Kodak and to tap the creative thinking that transformed Otis.
Kodak dominated the photographic market into the 1990s, but resisted moving to digital imaging because it threatened its film business. Now the 121-year-old company is about to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a shadow of its former self.
Otis, meanwhile, saw its share of the global market squeezed by low-cost competitors, but responded in 2000 by launching the Gen2 machine-roomless elevator, which is now the 160-year-old company's fastest seller.
To Shin, the story of one company is a lesson for NASA and the U.S. aviation industry, while the other could be a model. “In 1991, Kodak dominated the global market for film, and was wiped out by digital imaging. They had the money and the talent to compete, but failed miserably,” he says. “Otis is the complete opposite. They gave a multi-disciplinary team the most compelling problem statement in the business—get rid of the machine room at the top of the elevator. They broke more than 100 years of tradition in elevator design.”
Shin likens the U.S. civil-aviation industry to Kodak at its peak, blessed with growing demand, record orders and increasing deliveries, but facing global competitors, affordability and sustainability challenges, and an industry-shaking technological revolution. “We are the Kodak film of 1991. NASA aeronautics has the most talent in government R&D, the most money and the best facilities. But we are not invincible. Yet, if we adopt the [Otis] model . . . adapt our mindset, our way of doing business, [we could] be invincible.”
U.S. aviation is not in danger of a demise as dramatic as Kodak's, which saw its revenues plunge from a high of $16 billion in 1996 to $6.2 billion in 2011. But it takes 20 years to field a new technology in aviation, so the aim is to create a “burning platform” long before the fire ignites. “It is not that anything is broken, but we face global competition in R&D and we have got to start running again,” Shin says.
After declining to a low of $450 million in fiscal 2008, the year Shin assumed his post, NASA's aeronautics budget has recovered steadily to $560 million in fiscal 2013—still just a third of what it was in real terms in 1998. A restructuring in 2006 to focus the limited funding on foundational research has paid dividends; several promising technologies are moving into larger-scale, more integrated testing.
But wind-tunnel and flight testing is expensive and, absent extra funding, the agency has been forced to choose between which technologies to mature. “NASA's budget is not tiny, but the aeronautics piece is miniscule,” Administrator Charles Bolden acknowledged to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Aviation 2013 Conference in Los Angeles last month.
Unveiling the new strategic vision, he chided the aviation industry for “not talking about aeronautics enough . . . If I got half as much pressure from this community as I do from one congressman about going to a distant planet, just think what we could do.” In his four years as administrator, Bolden said, he has been to “zero” congressional hearings on aeronautics “and that is not a good trend.”
NASA's new vision is an effort to provide an Otis-like problem statement to focus its aeronautics research on the challenges and opportunities that face aviation. “My predecessors did not have the luxury of taking the time to look ahead at where we should be going in the next 20-40 years. My management team has stayed intact long enough for us to [focus on] this. We hope it will be a lasting legacy,” says Shin.
Strategic trends identified by NASA include the shift in the global economy to the Asia-Pacific region, the growth of the middle class in India and China, and exploding urbanization worldwide—all factors behindand 's bullish forecasts for air traffic and aircraft deliveries in the next 20 years. But the same factors are also clear to others who view building an aviation industry as a national priority.
“Countries that are not yet major players see the same trends and will not sit on the sidelines,” Shin says. “The scary part about China's aviation industry is that they have a domestic market to support the industry and don't have to rely on exports. If we only worry about the [Comac], we are being short-sighted.” Better, more advanced models will follow, he warns.
Another megatrend is what NASA calls “technology convergence”—the ability to coalesce technologies from other sectors. It is imperative to do this effectively, Shin says. Non-aerospace sectors are already capitalizing on advances in information, communication and automation technologies. But, complexity, capital intensity, safety and scrutiny work against the aviation industry, he notes.
“But for NASA and industry to stay leaders, I am a firm believer this is critical,” Shin says. “If we do not know how to bring all those technologies together, extract their essence, combine and apply them to aviation to spur advances and new capabilities, then we will not sustain our lead. We will be left on the platform with dust on our faces if we insist on going through the traditional way of developing and infusing technologies.”
The new strategy aligns civil aeronautics research under six thrusts: safe, efficient growth in operations, low-boom supersonics, ultra-efficient subsonic commercial aircraft, low-carbon propulsion, real-time system-wide safety assurance, and assured autonomy. “Now we need to get an idea of where our investment is too high, and where we have to start growing. We will go through this process over the coming months,” says Shin.
Organizational and investment changes are expected to be reflected in NASA's fiscal 2015 budget request, which will be presented early next year. The bulk of NASA's $560 million annual investment in aeronautics research is in the safe, efficient operations and ultra-efficient aircraft thrusts. “We need to start doing more in low carbon and autonomy,” he says. “Assured autonomy could bring a transformation, far beyond just unmanned aircraft systems, in manned aircraft and operation of the National Airspace System.”
“We are on the right track with safety and efficiency, but we need to bring more to sustainability,” continues Shin. “To truly transform aviation, we need to look at automation, intelligence and electric aircraft, so it will be possible to start thinking about on-demand operations, such as cargo that is more than just scheduled.”
NASA is pushing for funding to build a low-boom supersonic flight demonstrator as a flagship for the new vision. “We are not developing technologies to enable a supersonic civil transport, but we are trying to make sure that a low-boom standard can be established,” Shin says. “We want to develop the data to show regulators that a certain level of boom will allow supersonic flight over land.”
Tap on the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to read our account of NASA's late-1990s cut to aeronautics funding, kiiling supersonic and subsonic transport research programs, to cover cost overruns on the International Space Station, or go to AviationWeek.com/nasaaero