NASA Demonstrates Manufacturing Methods for Hybrid Wing Aircraft | MIT Technology Review

Air travel accounts for a significant portion of carbon emissions.

Wing it: NASA has built a remote-controlled prototype of its hybrid wing design.

Aerospace engineers have long known that ditching a conventional tubular fuselage in favor of a manta-ray-like “hybrid wing” shape could dramatically reduce fuel consumption. A team at NASA has now demonstrated a manufacturing method that promises to make the design practical.

Combined with an extremely efficient type of engine, called an ultra-high bypass ratio engine, the hybrid wing design could use half as much fuel as conventional aircraft. Although it may take 20 years for the technology to come to market, the manufacturing method developed at NASA could help improve conventional commercial aircraft within the next eight to 10 years, estimates Fay Collier, a NASA program manager.

The manufacturing technique lowers the weight of structural components of an aircraft by 25 percent, which could significantly reduce fuel consumption. The advances are the culmination of a three-year, $300 million effort by NASA and partners including Pratt & Whitney and Boeing.

There are two key challenges with the flying wing design. One is how to control such a plane at low speeds. NASA previously addressed this by building a six-meter-wide remote-controlled test aircraft (the X-48B) to demonstrate ways to control hybrid wings. Based on those tests and wind tunnel tests, NASA built a larger remote-controlled aircraft that started test flights last year.

The second challenge is building a full-scale version of the aircraft with pressurized cabins that is structurally sound. One reason tubular airplanes have persisted is that it’s relatively easy to build a tube that can withstand the forces acting on it from the outside during flight while maintaining cabin pressure. The hybrid wing design involves a flatter, box-like fuselage that blends with the wings. The flatter structure, which includes some near-right angles, is much more difficult to build in a way that’s strong enough and light enough to be practical.

NASA’s manufacturing process starts with preformed carbon composite rods. The rods are covered with carbon fiber fabric and stitched into place. Fabric is then stitched over foam strips to create cross members. The fabric is impregnated with an epoxy to create a rigid composite structure.

Sections of a fuselage built with the technique were tested and shown to withstand up to the forces that would be applied to a finished aircraft. Tests also showed that when enough pressure was applied to cause the parts to fail, the stitching used to make the structure stopped cracks from spreading—a key to avoiding catastrophic failure in flight.

The researchers are now building a 30-foot-wide, two-level pressurized structure that will be used in an attempt to validate the manufacturing approach. That structure is scheduled to be finished by 2015.

To achieve a 50 percent reduction in fuel consumption, the hybrid wing design will need to incorporate an advanced engine design. Collier says ultra-high bypass engines are a good match. In an ultra-high bypass design, the front fan on the engine is far larger than the core of the engine, where air is compressed and combustion takes place. Such large fans can be difficult to mount under the wing, as engines are mounted in most conventional airliners. The hybrid wing design involves mounting the engines on top of the plane, rather than under the wings (The top-mount design also cuts noise levels.)

NASA has helped Pratt & Whitney develop prototype ultra-high bypass engines, which are slated to go into commercial use for the first time next year, starting on Bombardier’s C-Series aircraft. NASA is further optimizing the engines to take advantage of the top-mount design in the hybrid wing airplane.


Congress May Bring Back Airline Regulation


WASHINGTON — Restoring financial regulation of the airline industry will be put before Congress if the Justice Department approves a proposed merger of United and Continental airlines, two key House members said Wednesday.

At a hearing on the merger, Reps. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Jerry Costello, D-Ill., chairman of the panel’s aviation subcommittee, expressed concern about the impact the proposed deal could have on consumers and airline workers.

Deregulation has been credited with making airline travel affordable for the average American. But Oberstar pointed to the $2.7 billion the airlines earned in baggage fees in 2009 as evidence that consumers are no longer benefiting from the system. He said he believes there’s support in the House for re-regulation.

“Hardly a day passes where I don’t walk out on the (House) floor that someone asks me, ‘When are we going to re-regulate the airlines?'” Oberstar told reporters after the hearing.

The legislation would impose federal regulation of airline pricing and re-establish a government gatekeeper role similar to that played by the old Civil Aeronautics Board prior to deregulation in 1978, Oberstar said. The board set standards for companies trying to enter the airline market and decided on a case-by-case basis which companies should be granted permission to fly passengers.

Deregulation worked for a while, bringing new, lower-cost carriers into the market and driving down fares, said Oberstar, who – as a junior congressman – voted in favor of deregulation. Most of those air carriers – as well as several “legacy” carriers dating back prior to deregulation – are gone.

The CEOs of United and Continental, who testified at the hearing, complained that competing against a steady influx of low-cost carriers who drive prices artificially low and then go bankrupt has weakened the airline industry.

Airlines have also suffered repeated shocks in recent years, including the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the SARS virus, volatile oil prices and the economic downturn. They have shed more than 158,000 full-time jobs since employment peaked in 2001 and lost an estimated $30 billion to $60 billion in recent years. At least 13 airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the past several years.

“The status quo for this industry is unacceptable,” said United’s Glenn Tilton.

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Peanut Ban On Airplanes? FAA Considers Nut Ban For Airlines Because Of Allergy


SAVANNAH, Ga. — Federal regulators are considering a snack attack on the nation’s airlines that would restrict or even completely ban serving peanuts on commercial flights.

Advocates say the move would ease fears and potential harm to an estimated 1.8 million Americans who suffer from peanut allergies. Peanut farmers and food packagers, however, see it as overreaching and unfair to their legume.

“The peanut is such a great snack and such an American snack,” says Martin Kanan, CEO of the King Nut Companies, an Ohio company that packages the peanuts served by most U.S. airlines. “What’s next? Is it banning peanuts in ballparks?”

Twelve years after Congress ordered it to back off peanuts, the U.S. Transportation Department gave notice last week that it’s gathering feedback from allergy sufferers, medical experts, the food industry and the public on whether to ban or restrict in-flight peanuts.

The peanut proposals were listed in an 84-page document including several other proposed consumer protections for air travelers. Three options were given: banning serving of peanuts on all planes; prohibiting peanuts only when an allergic passenger requests it in advance; or requiring an undefined “peanut-free zone” flight when a passenger asks for one.

While those options only pertain to peanuts served by flight crews, the document also states “we are particularly interested in hearing views on how peanuts and peanut products brought on board aircraft by passengers should be handled.”

Spokesman Bill Mosely said the department is responding to concerns from travelers who either suffer from peanut allergies or have allergic children, “some of whom do not fly” because they’re afraid of exposure.

“We’re just asking for comment on whether we should do any of these three things,” Mosely said. “We may not do any of them.”

Peanut allergy can cause life-threatening reactions in people ingesting even trace amounts. Just breathing peanut dust in the air can cause problems – though usually minor ones – such as itching, sneezing and coughing.

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Carry-On Baggage Fee Ban Introduced By Schumer

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wants it to be free to move about the country.

Well, not exactly, but he does want to get rid of all carry-on baggage fees.

The senator introduced a bill essentially banning airlines’ ability to charge passengers for traveling with small bags.

From The Hill:

The senator’s legislation blocks a private letter ruling issued by the Treasury Department in January that allows airlines to receive preferential tax treatment for fees on services that are not deemed necessary for air transportation. The bill declares carry-on bags are necessary for air travel, which makes the carry-on fee subject to taxation.

Spirit Airlines recently announced that the company would charge passengers $45 for every bag brought on their airplanes to much criticism.

“Airline passengers have always had the right to bring a carry-on bag without having to worry about getting nickel and dimed by an airline company,” Schumer said Tuesday.

Sen. Frank Lautenber (D-NJ) signed, a cosponsor of the bill, released a statement Wednesday saying, “Airlines are taking advantage of a tax loophole and reaping financial benefits at the expense of travelers. It’s time to say enough is enough

Tough Coatings for Airplanes

Paper for airplanes: This paper (top), made from layers of tiny clay discs and a polymer (seen under the microscope at bottom), might be used as a strong, lightweight coating for buildings and airplanes.   Credit: Andreas Walther

A strong material inspired by abalone shells could be applied over large areas.

By Katherine Bourzac

For decades, materials scientists have looked to naturally existing composites as inspiration for tough, lightweight materials that could lighten vehicles. Such materials could save on fuel costs, protect airplanes, and be used in engine turbines that run more efficiently. The material that lines abalone shells, called nacre, has been of particular interest: it’s lightweight and strong, yet shatter-resistant. But mimicking the microscale structures responsible for its properties has been difficult, and hasn’t resulted in materials that can be manufactured on a large scale.

Now researchers in Helsinki, Finland, have developed a simple method for making large-area, nacre-like papers and coatings that could be painted on building walls and airplane skins for lightweight reinforcement. The researchers will work with the Finnish paper company UPM to commercialize the material.

“The excitement with nacre is that its properties are impressive when you consider what it’s made out of: calcium carbonate and a protein,” says Robert Ritchie, chair of the materials science and engineering department at the University of California, Berkeley, who is not involved with the coatings research. Nacre’s combination of interconnected plates of a very hard but shatter-prone material with an infill of a very soft but ductile material results in a composite whose properties are better than the sum of its parts. By starting with better materials, such as industrial ceramics and polymers or metal, it should be possible to make a synthetic composite whose properties are even better than those of nacre.

Most efforts to mimic the nacre structure’s combination of hard and soft materials have centered on structural materials that could provide a lightweight alternative to steel in building and vehicle frames and engine turbines. Steel is tough–that is, it doesn’t fracture when it’s stressed. Materials such as ceramics can’t be used for structural applications because they’re not tough. They can hold up under the stress of a great weight, but they’re prone to shattering. Last year, for example, Ritchie’s group made a nacre-like material that is the toughest ceramic ever made. In the form of a coating, such a strong, tough material could reinforce walls and airplane skins without adding significant weight. Previous work on making tough biomimetic coatings has stayed in the lab because these materials involved very laborious processes, such as dipping a glass slide in two solutions 1,800 times, to make thin coatings over small areas.

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American Airlines Blankets Will Cost 8 DOLLARS

DALLAS — If you want a pillow and blanket in coach on American Airlines, it’s going to cost you.

The airline will charge $8 for a pillow and blanket in coach class for domestic trips and some international flights longer than two hours, beginning May 1. The international flights are to and from Canada, Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean and Central America.

Spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said Monday it was an economic decision.

“American evaluates all aspects of the business to ensure that economic decisions are prudent and strategic for the long-term success of the company,” she said.

Huguely said blankets will remain complimentary in premium-class cabins and in all cabins for other international flights.

The airline will sell a blue fleece blanket with an inflatable neck pillow in a clear zippered pouch, and will throw in coupon for $10 off a $30 purchase at Bed, Bath and Beyond, Huguely said.

JetBlue and US Airways charge $7 for a blanket-and-pillow set, with US Airways adding eye shades and earplugs.

Airlines have steadily added and increased fees for other services such as checking luggage and buying tickets from a reservation agent since 2008, first to help cover jet fuel costs, then to offset large losses.

American parent AMR Corp. lost $1.47 billion last year – and $3.59 billion in the past two years – as traffic fell during the recession and competition limited American’s ability to raise fares.