NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate's Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project

Three industry teams spent 2011 studying how to meet NASA’s goals for making future aircraft burn 50 percent less fuel than aircraft that entered service in 1998, emit 75 percent fewer harmful emissions; and shrink the size of geographic areas affected by objectionable airport noise by 83 percent.  Image credit: NASA

Leaner, greener flying machines for the year 2025 are on the drawing boards of three industry teams under contract to the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project.

Boeing Company's advanced design concept The Boeing Company’s advanced design concept is a variation on the extremely aerodynamic hybrid wing body. Image credit: NASA/Boeing

Lockheed Martin's concept Lockheed Martin’s concept uses a box wing design and other advanced technologies to achieve green aviation goals. Image credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Northrop Grumman's concept "flying wing" designNorthrop Grumman’s concept is based on the extremely aerodynamic “flying wing” design. Image credit: NASA/Northrop Grumman

Lockheed Martin supersonic conceptOur ability to fly at supersonic speeds over land in civil aircraft depends on our ability to reduce the level of sonic booms. Image credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Northrop Grumman flying wing aircraft conceptThis computer-generated image shows a possible future “flying wing” aircraft, very efficiently and quietly in flight over populated areas. This kind of design, produced by Northrop Grumman, would most likely carry cargo at first and then also carry passengers. Image credit: NASA/Northrop Grumman

AMELIA (Advanced Model for Extreme Lift and Improved Aeroacoustics)This computer rendering shows AMELIA (Advanced Model for Extreme Lift and Improved Aeroacoustics), a possible future hybrid wing body-type subsonic vehicle with short takeoff and landing capabilities. Image credit: NASA/Cal Poly

The "double bubble" D8 Series concept by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The “double bubble” D8 Series future aircraft design concept comes from the research team led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Image credit: NASA/MIT/Aurora Flight Sciences

The D8 or "double bubble" concept by MITOne of the advanced design concepts – the D8 or “double bubble” – is now a subscale model being tested in a wind tunnel at MIT. Image credit: NASA/MIT

Boxed- or joined-wing aircraft configuration to reduce drag This artist’s concept shows a possible future subsonic aircraft using a boxed- or joined-wing configuration to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency. Image credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission for future commercial aircraft NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate for commercial aircraft that could be flying in 20 to 25 years. Image credit: NASA/Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation

Teams from The Boeing Company in Huntington Beach, Calif., Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, Calif., and Northrop Grumman in El Segundo, Calif., have spent the last year studying how to meet NASA goals to develop technology that would allow future aircraft to burn 50 percent less fuel than aircraft that entered service in 1998 (the baseline for the study), with 50 percent fewer harmful emissions; and to shrink the size of geographic areas affected by objectionable airport noise by 83 percent.

“The real challenge is we want to accomplish all these things simultaneously,” said ERA project manager Fay Collier. “It’s never been done before. We looked at some very difficult metrics and tried to push all those metrics down at the same time.”

So NASA put that challenge to industry – awarding a little less than $11 million to the three teams to assess what kinds of aircraft designs and technologies could help meet the goals. The companies have just given NASA their results.

“We’ll be digesting the three studies and we’ll be looking into what to do next,” said Collier.

Boeing’s advanced vehicle concept centers around the company’s now familiar blended wing body design as seen in the sub-scale remotely piloted X-48, which has been wind tunnel tested at NASA’s Langley Research Center and flown at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center. One thing that makes this concept different from current airplanes is the placement of its Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines. The engines are on top of the plane’s back end, flanked by two vertical tails to shield people on the ground from engine noise. The aircraft also would feature an advanced lightweight, damage tolerant, composite structure; technologies for reducing airframe noise; advanced flight controls; hybrid laminar flow control, which means surfaces designed to reduce drag; and long-span wings which improve fuel efficiency.

Lockheed Martin took an entirely different approach. Its engineers proposed a box wing design, in which a front wing mounted on the lower belly of the plane is joined at the tips to an aft wing mounted on top of the plane. The company has studied the box wing concept for three decades, but has been waiting for lightweight composite materials, landing gear technologies, hybrid laminar flow and other tools to make it a viable configuration. Lockheed’s proposal combines the unique design with a Rolls Royce Liberty Works Ultra Fan Engine. This engine has a bypass ratio that is approximately five times greater than current engines, pushing the limits of turbofan technology.

Northrop Grumman chose to embrace a little of its company’s history, going back to the 1930s and ’40s, with its advanced vehicle concept. Its design is a flying wing, championed by Northrop founder Jack Northrop, and reminiscent of its B-2 aircraft. Four high-bypass engines, provided by Rolls Royce and embedded in the upper surface of the aerodynamically efficient wing would provide noise shielding. The company’s expertise in building planes without the benefit of a stabilizing tail would be transferred to the commercial airline market. The Northrop proposal also incorporates advanced composite materials and engine and swept wing laminar flow control technologies.