Aircraft

Students rise to NASA electric aircraft design challenge

Students rise to NASA electric...
The one-and-only winner of the graduate section was Tom Neuman for his Vapor design
The one-and-only winner of the graduate section was Tom Neuman for his Vapor design
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The one-and-only winner of the graduate section was Tom Neuman for his Vapor design
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The one-and-only winner of the graduate section was Tom Neuman for his Vapor design
An all-electric design by first place undergraduate winner from the University of California at Davis is dubbed "Bladessa"
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An all-electric design by first place undergraduate winner from the University of California at Davis is dubbed "Bladessa"
Areion is designed to use a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system
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Areion is designed to use a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system
The SCUBA Stingray design plans to use a hybrid aluminum-air/lithium ion battery system in its propulsion system
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The SCUBA Stingray design plans to use a hybrid aluminum-air/lithium ion battery system in its propulsion system
The BeamTree PH-10 claims a large wingspan and a high lift-to-drag ratio
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The BeamTree PH-10 claims a large wingspan and a high lift-to-drag ratio

In a recent challenge issued by NASA, university students were asked to design an electric aircraft envisaged to enter service in the year 2020 and be commercially competitive with standard piston-engine craft. In response, the space agency received submissions from 20 universities across the United States that not only met the brief but, in many cases, went above and beyond to really the impress the judges. We take a look at the top five prize winners.

The designs were assessed not only on their merit, but also considered in regard to the student university level. As such, submissions were categorized into graduate and undergraduate design studies and judged accordingly.

Graduate Level

Vapor

The one-and-only winner of the graduate section was Tom Neuman for his Vapor design
The one-and-only winner of the graduate section was Tom Neuman for his Vapor design

The one-and-only winner of this section was Tom Neuman, a graduate student with a Master’s of aerospace engineering at the Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His design brought in twin 8 ft (2.5 m) tail-mounted propellers that, according to Neuman, were computer-modeled to achieve 92 percent efficiency.

With an efficient laminar flow fuselage design and retractable landing gear to further reduce drag, Vapor has a claimed 25 percent reduction in parasitic drag when compared to a Cirrus SR22 aircraft used as a standard light-aviation benchmark.

Designed to be powered by a proton exchange membrane fuel-cell (PEMFC), Neuman claims to have modeled a specific-energy of 800 Wh/kg in his design study at an impressive 55 percent efficiency. With this set-up, Vapor is expected to be capable of 800 nautical miles (1,482 km) at a cruising speed of around 150 knots (278 km/h).

Undergraduate Level

Bladessa

An all-electric design by first place undergraduate winner from the University of California at Davis is dubbed "Bladessa"
An all-electric design by first place undergraduate winner from the University of California at Davis is dubbed "Bladessa"

In first place in this category is a design produced by a team of students from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). The design is more conventional with twin wing-mounted motors. A puller-propeller concept intended to be built using composite materials, the electric power-plants are intended to be driven by a bank of rechargeable Lithium-ion batteries.

Ethan Kellogg and team members produced a performance design claim of 135 knot (250 km/h) cruising speed and a range of 520 nautical miles (963 km) for Bladessa. With 270 horsepower (200 Kw) on tap, the Bladessa design is intended to have a maximum take-off weight of around 4,200 lb (1,900 kg), including up to 700 lb (317 kg) of payload.

Again, laminar flows have been carefully modeled to achieve maximum efficiency and minimum drag on and around the fuselage of the aircraft.

Areion

Areion is designed to use a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system
Areion is designed to use a hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system

In second place was another UC Davis design, this time a pusher-propeller type with a forward canard. Presumably named after the winged immortal horse born to the goddess Demeter, this contender's configuration is also designed to decrease the area and drag of the main wing by using a blended airfoil design and a set of imaginatively-named hyperelastic flaperons.

According to the team led by fourth year undergraduate, Louis Edelman, this enables the usage of Natural Laminar Flow (NLF) technology to reduce energy requirements over the flight envelope.

Again an all-electric aircraft, power and flight characteristic details are sparse, but the team does say that it would be a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell that provided the energy.

BeamTree PH-10

The BeamTree PH-10 claims a large wingspan and a high lift-to-drag ratio
The BeamTree PH-10 claims a large wingspan and a high lift-to-drag ratio

Bringing up third place in the list of winners was a design from a team at Virginia Tech. With a 48.5 ft (14.7 m) wingspan, an AC induction motor, and three lithium-ion battery packs, the BeamTree PH-10 is designed to be capable of a cruise speed of 175 knots (325 km/h) for an impressive distance of 783 nautical miles (1,450 km).

The large mass of the electric propulsion system was the main design driver for the Virginia Tech team who envisaged a tadpole fuselage to reduce profile drag along with winglets to help better aerodynamic efficiency.

SCUBA Stingray

The SCUBA Stingray design plans to use a hybrid aluminum-air/lithium ion battery system in its propulsion system
The SCUBA Stingray design plans to use a hybrid aluminum-air/lithium ion battery system in its propulsion system

Rounding out the top five is the SCUBA Stingray design – yet another entrant from UC Davis – which received an honorable mention. Designed to use a cutting-edge hybrid aluminum-air/lithium ion battery system for long range and heavy payload capacity.

Design specifications include a four-passenger carrying capacity, along with a claimed range of at least 500 nautical miles (926 km), carrying a payload in excess of 400 lb (180 kg), all while cruising at a speed greater than 130 knots (240 km/h).

The outstanding design aspects of the Stingray, according to the team, are tapered primary and horizontal wings, fixed tricycle landing gear, along with a substantial T-tail empennage.

According to NASA, the ideas of these students are more than mere academic exercises; research at the space agency in aeronautics also includes finding ways to cut back on fossil fuel dependence and reduce the aviation sector's pollution emissions, including lessening noise around airports.

"The research and critical thinking that went into each of these designs was very impressive," said Jaiwon Shin, NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics. "It's clear there is a new generation of aeronautical innovators nearly ready to make their mark on the future of aviation."

Winners of this challenge will be invited to visit NASA in October to present their work.

Source: NASA

9 comments
jerryd
Anyone not using 2 large props turning slowly is losing 30-50% of range. And twin ducted fans are little better if at all than a single big prop. Using a fueled FC isn't electric, it's fueled. Various single use alum, sulfur, lithium,zinc/air batteries can give 1,000 mile range in a good E aircraft now. Just needs production.
Paulinator
Big slow props definitely produce more thrust for less power at low speeds, but as speed increases, so does the mass flow thru the prop disc...thus reducing the benefit at cruise.
JohnnyGoodmo
These are definitely interesting designs. But, I hope these are more than just CAD projects. I'd like to know some of the trade-offs that led to the configurations. Also, did such practical matters like location of fuel tank and capacity (especially for the hydrogen fueled one) and battery storage locations, size, weight of the cells.... The V-tech design seems to me the most practical (not just because its conventional). The 2nd place UC Davis... can the wing really be supported as shown? Did anyone notice, there is no means of directional control or stability? The winning entry... storing the motors and props as shown will require beefed up structure on the empennage to take the additional loads and viberations. The V-tail is already a complex control configuration (why we dont see so many), adding the motors in that location will make it even more complex when the props accelerate and decelerate - creating a pitching moment. Again, these are very cool designs - they just may need a few trade-offs to make them practical.
DarthJedi
Jerryd; I must disagree with the FC part of your comment. Hydrogen use in a fuel-cell is not a fuel, there is zero combustion. In this state Hydrogen is a conveyor of energy like a battery. In essence the plane runs on a different type of battery.
Pat Pending
Tom Neuman's Vapour aircraft would have some interesting flight characteristics. With the line of thrust high above the C of G and tail mounted engines any power changes would cause dramatic pitch attitude movement. Stall recovery would be challenging. I can't begin to guess what effect prop wash would have over the control surfaces of a V tail. Hope he studies the history of the Beechcraft Bonanza before actually building it.
the.other.will
NASA defined the parameters of their own competition. Their definition of electric included fuel cells as well as batteries powering electric motors. The PEFMC doesn't emit C02 or CO.
LouisEdelman
JohnnyGoodmo, don't worry these are 6 month preliminary design level efforts that go much deeper than the CAD and taglines in the NASA press release. Behind those are 25 page design reports and thousands of work-hours of design work and tool development. The wing on Areion can support itself, our structural and aerodynamic techniques have come a long way since the Cessna 182 entered the scene. Though that is certainly a concern that would be studied in further detail if there were a next design phase. In terms of directional stability, the aircraft's unique lift distribution provides inherent directional stability. See the link below for a presentation on the technology. It has also advanced significantly since this was recorded over a year ago. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoT2upDbdUg For trim capabilities, what isn't displayed on the CAD model is the presence of wing tip spoiler devices providing yaw trim control much like a B-2 does for high cross-wind conditions and yaw commands.
ColbyFulton
I don't think any of these planes would fly... Wings are too small, wouldn't produce enough lift.
BigGoofyGuy
I think those are really nice designs.