NASA Chief: Uncrewed Aircraft 'Safer'

 - July 27, 2020, 1:49 PM
(Photo: NASA)

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine shared the agency’s vision for urban air mobility (UAM) at last week’s EAA Spirit of Aviation virtual event. “You can actually make the argument that in the future it's going to be safer to fly an uncrewed aircraft than crewed aircraft,” he said while outlining NASA’s related programs. Bridenstine, a former congressman and U.S. Navy F-18 pilot, pointed out that sophisticated detect-and-avoid technologies, including 360-degree sensors aboard future autonomously piloted aircraft, will provide “better capabilities than what a human has” when it comes to avoiding midair or terrain collisions. “I know it sounds crazy, but it is absolutely true,” he said. 

Bridenstine said current air traffic control infrastructure “is not going to be able to manage” UAM—which he called “advanced air mobility”—as currently envisioned with “thousands of unmanned aerial systems operating [at] 400 feet and below and each of doing dozens of missions in a given day. That's a very congested airspace. So what you're looking for here is the development of an autonomous system."  We need to develop the autonomous system that factors in air space, traffic corridors, route planning, interaction with manned aircraft, terrain avoidance, wind and weather, and the ability not only for the aircraft to be capable of dynamic rerouting, but also use of dynamic airspace, where the boundaries change to accommodate traffic, he said.  

Bridenstine said NASA’s continuing investment in and advancing of  “leap-ahead” technologies such as UAM, more fuel-efficient propulsion, advanced aerodynamics, and low-boom supersonic research were essential components for keeping “American aeronautics preeminent in the world” and maintaining a dominant share of the aviation “export market that we, of course, had been leading for so many decades.” He said that meant the development of alternative propulsion, including all-electric aircraft, smaller-core jet engines with larger turbofans, and hybrid-electric turbofans, as well as aerodynamic advances such as trussed high-aspect-ratio wings. Bridenstine added that NASA is well-grounded in “doing a lot of the technology incubator work in advance of anybody bringing something to market.” 

By way of example, he said the X-59 low-boom demonstrator, developed in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, is intended to prove the efficacy of supersonic flight over land with “such a little boom that it doesn’t disrupt anybody on Earth.” Such a demonstration is seen as critical before Congress would repeal the current civil aircraft overland supersonic prohibition, a move seen as central to more widespread aircraft OEM investment in supersonic. 

The administrator said NASA selects its research projects based on “where the market is going,” in cooperation with the FAA and private industry, and added this approach has drawn bipartisan congressional support. “We’re seeing our budget actually increase,” he said. “Our budget is only effective if we can find the right industry partner and then work with them to accomplish these generational, leap-ahead capabilities. We don't go out and just spend our own money on our own projects.”