NASA and Honeywell (literally) look at sonic booms

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Honeywell's predictive software display shows unacceptable sonic booms will occur in the gray shaded area with red curves if the current flight plan is not modified(Credit: Honeywell Aerospace)

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NASA has teamed with Honeywell Aerospace to help bring its dream of the return of commercial supersonic flight a bit closer to reality. NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center and Honeywell have flight tested a cockpit display that allows pilots to visualize the location of sonic booms before they occur. With this knowledge, aircraft can change course and minimize the boom over populated areas.

One of the major reasons civilian supersonic travel never really caught on and why it died with the grounding of the Concorde fleet is the window-cracking sonic booms that supersonic aircraft generate as they exceed the speed of sound. When Concorde entered service in the 1970s, it was only allowed to exceed Mach 1 over the ocean, away from populated areas. Needless to say, this made an already expensive aircraft even less competitive.

Modern aircraft engineers are looking at all sorts of ways to reduce the sonic boom problem, such as new fuselage and nose designs, new wings, and new engine nacelles all intended to reduce the shockwave. But sonic booms aren't that easy to eliminate. As part of its Commercial Supersonic Technology (CST) project, NASA has been developing new algorithms to predict or mitigate high-altitude shockwaves while increasing aircraft efficiency.

The tricky bit has been translating these algorithms into the real-world applications. NASA's approach to this has been to farm the job out to avionics companies, such as Rockwell Collins and Honeywell Aerospace, the latter of which was awarded a two-year contract in early 2015 to address the problem of sonic booms in relation to commercial supersonic flight over land.

Over the first year of the contract period, Honeywell and NASA have developed software that can predict sonic booms and display technology that can intuitively convey this information to pilots. Honeywell recently tested the system over commercial airspace.

According to Honeywell, the new software has been designed to be easily incorporated into the company's Interactive Navigation (INAV) system, which provides simultaneous displays of traffic, terrain, airspace, airways, airports, and navigation aids. In addition, it is designed to take on new software, such as the sonic boom predictor, and is compatible with existing and future aircraft.

"NASA is committed to making supersonic flight over land a reality, and key to achieving this is to reduce the impact of sonic booms," says Bob Witwer, vice president of Advanced Technology at Honeywell Aerospace. "Using the Honeywell User Experience design concept, our engineering team has tackled how to intuitively inform pilots about upcoming terrain, weather and more — now we are helping pilots predict and visualize noise to tackle sonic booms."

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