Cleaning up low Earth orbit took a step forward in June, when Europe’s RemoveDebris satellite was deployed from the International Space Station. The active debris removal technology demonstration began when the satellite launched a net to capture a deployed cubesat simulating a piece of space debris. The first harpoon capture demo in orbit is set to follow, before RemoveDebris deploys a large sail that will drag the craft into the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.
Blood in Rwanda, vaccines in Vanuatu, laboratory samples in Switzerland, automated defibrillators in Nevada—urgency and inaccessibility are key factors behind the rising interest in medical delivery by drone. Zipline’s pioneering service speeding blood for transfusions to remote clinics in central Africa has been joined by pilot programs in several other countries including the U.S.
A new type of aircraft made headlines in 2018—the electrical vertical-takeoff-and-landing personal air vehicles intend for recreational use only. With only limited performance, these single-seat machines are designed to fit within the ultralight category, avoiding the requirement for airworthiness certification or a pilot’s license. Backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, Kitty Hawk unveiled its production Flyer (pictured) in 2018, followed by Opener’s Blackfly, Hoversurf’s Hoverbike and Lift Aviation’s Hexa.
Airbus Perlan Mission II
The Airbus-sponsored Perlan 2 pressurized sailplane reached an altitude of 76,298 ft. on Sept. 2 over the Andes Mountains, eclipsing the previous record altitude for a manned, winged, subsonic aircraft of 73,737 ft. set by a jet-powered Lockheed U-2C in 1989. The latest achievement was accomplished on the first anniversary of the Perlan 2’s first record-breaking altitude flight in September 2017, when it soared to 52,172 ft. The Airbus Perlan Mission II team is aiming to reach an altitude of 90,000 ft.
Cubesats explored new territory when two briefcase-size MarCO (Mars Cube One) spacecraft, launched in May with NASA’s Insight Mars mission, flew past the Red Planet as the lander entered the atmosphere and touched down on the Elysium Planitia plain. The 30-lb. craft, nicknamed Eve and WALL-E, relayed data to Earth on Insight’s parachute descent and retrorocket landing in near real time, versus waiting hours for NASA’s Mars obiters to be in position.
NASA returned to large manned X-planes in 2018, awarding Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works a $247.5 million contract to build the X-59A QueSST low-boom flight demonstrator. The single-seat, single-engine aircraft is expected to fly early in 2022 and will be flown over U.S. communities, urban and rural, to gather data on public response to reduced sonic booms. Another new X-plane was named: Generation Orbit’s GO1 air-launched hypersonic testbed for the Air Force Research Laboratory becoming the X-60A.
The space sector pushed additive manufacturing in new directions in 2018. A NASA payload called the Refabricator was launched to the International Space Station. Built by Tethers Unlimited, this can recycle plastic waste into 3D printer filament which it can then use to fabricate parts, tools and other items on orbit. On the ground, startup Relativity Space pushed ahead with plans for a smallsat launcher that will be 95% 3D-printed by mass, using a large automated printer.
Facebook and Google may have abandoned their plans for high-flying, internet-broadcasting unmanned aircraft, but industry continues to pursue solar-powered “pseudo-satellites.” Airbus’ 82-ft.-span Zephyr S set an endurance record of almost 26 days on its first flight, China’s AVIC flew its 66-ft.-span Morning Star to 66,000 ft. and Aurora Flight Sciences rolled out its 243-ft.-span Odysseus. And they are not all large UAVs: UAVOS demonstrated its 14-lb., 24-ft.-span SAT-i can fly survey missions up to 10 hr.
Sikorsky’s S-97 Raider coaxial-rotor compound returned t0 the air in June and quickly exceeded 200 kt. in flight tests. In Europe, the Clean Sky 2 program’s Airbus Helicopters-led Racer technology demonstrator (pictured) passed its preliminary design in October. Final assembly is to begin in late 2019. For thrust in cruise and control in hover, the Racer has pusher propellers mounted at the tips of a double wing that has high stiffness, low weight and minimizes rotor download.
Telescoping landing gear, like folding wingtips, are an engineering solution to an operating issue. Folding tips will allow Boeing’s long-winged Boeing 777X to go where the Airbus A380 cannot—the airport gates used by current 777s and 787s. Extendable main gear, unveiled in 2018, is a key enabler for the 230-seat 737-10 - 9.5-in. taller when full extended, yet fitting into the same wheel well, it allows Boeing to stretch the 737-9 by 66 in. while maintaining the existing body rotation angles for takeoff and landing.
A team of six live and 24 virtual unmanned aircraft demonstrated the ability to autonomously strike preplanned and pop-up targets without supervision by a human mission commander under DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments project. The test was a step toward a vision of future warfare in which enemy jamming and spoofing forces military commanders to rely on UAS operating autonomously to complete a mission.
Cleaning up low Earth orbit, delivering medicines by drone, flying high on the power of the Sun - we take a look at some of the technology highlights in 2018.
Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.