Moonshots for Planes: NASA's Got Out-There Concepts for Aviation Too

"It just might be that it's not feasible, but that's OK."

Jun 23 2015, 1:00pm

Concept art of the "digital twin." Image: NASA

NASA likes wacky aviation tech. In the past, it's tested out planes with shapeshifting, bug-resistant wings. And now six teams of intrepid aeronautical innovators have been selected to test out some even wilder aviation ideas that might transform aircraft as we know them.

Among the far-out ideas is an electrically-propelled aircraft whose very structure serves as the battery. As batteries usually have to be carried inside such aircraft, their volume and weight can often be a hindrance. With this in mind, and given advances in materials science, chemistry, and nanotechnology, researchers are hoping to just morph the aircraft itself into one big flying battery.

Just take a look at the picture to see what they have in mind:

Concept art of a plane that uses its structure as a battery. Image: NASA

Another concept, "Digital Twin," is a computer model version of a particular plane that could predict how the aircraft will perform over time. By using this kind of simulation, researchers hope that they would be able to preempt when problems might arise, and fix them up in advance.

An AI unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that could respond to changing flight condition without remote guidance from an on-ground pilot is another idea, the aim there being to make UAVs more efficient.

The six concepts were selected out of 17 teams in total under NASA's new Convergent Aeronautics Solutions (CAS) project. The projects will be funded for the next two years and the ultimate goal is to come up with aviation systems that are efficient but have minimal environmental impact, ease global air traffic, and invent methods of air transportation that will facilitate urgent medical transportation from remote areas without human involvement.

As you've likely gauged by now, these aircraft ideas sound pretty crazy. Despite the two-year funded project, there's no guarantee that any of these concepts will work in practice. Both the innovators and the NASA jury are aware that technological hiccups, cost, and the laws of physics might impede developments.

"It just might be that it's not feasible, but that's OK."

However, by testing out some of these wacky concepts, NASA is hoping to come up with some new ideas that could be applied to improve existing technologies, or further developed in the future. While it would be cool if a battery-shaped plane took to the skies, Rohn and co. are aiming for any discoveries to have applications in other industries across the globe.

"The idea of the project is this is an investment process, where we're using almost venture capital-like principles. But instead of money, our return on investment is in knowledge and potential solutions to future challenges in aviation," said Doug Rohn, NASA's manager for the Transformative Aeronautics Concepts Program within the agency's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) in a press statement.

"We're going to ask the questions and see if these ideas are feasible or not. It just might be that it's not feasible, but that's OK."