NASA and Boeing join forces to develop ‘airliner of the future’

NASA is teaming with Boeing on the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project

NASA is teaming with Boeing on the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project Photo: NASA, Getty, TND

NASA and Boeing have teamed up to deliver the airliner of the future, in a move aviation experts say is a “significant global development”.

NASA announced on Wednesday that it will work with Boeing on the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator project, which seeks to build, test and fly an emissions-reducing single-aisle aircraft this decade.

“What NASA and Boeing are trying to do is to create the ability to improve the efficiency and sustainability of our short-haul and future long-haul flights. We won’t have fossil fuels forever,” Professor Doug Drury, head of aviation at Central Queensland University, told The New Daily.

Professor Drury said sustainability had been on the minds of everybody in the industry for years.

“COVID was like a reset button for the aviation industry – it accelerated everybody’s appetite to look to the future.”

NASA administrator Bill Nelson holds a model of an aircraft with a Transonic Truss-Braced Wing. Photo: NASA, Joel Kowsky

Model plane

Single-aisle aircraft are typically used across the aviation industry. Many Australians would be familiar with models like the 737 and the A320.

What makes this experimental aircraft unique is its Transonic Truss- Braced Wing concept.

Elongated, thin wings stabilised by diagonal struts connect the wings to the plane at two points. This design feature creates less drag and reduces weight, which results in less fuel being burnt.

“NASA is working toward an ambitious goal of developing game-changing technologies to reduce aviation energy use and emissions over the coming decades toward an aviation community goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050,” said Bob Pearce, NASA associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

“The Transonic Truss-Braced Wing is the kind of transformative concept and investment we will need to meet those challenges and, critically, the technologies demonstrated in this project have a clear and viable path to informing the next generation of single-aisle aircraft, benefiting everyone that uses the air transportation system.”

According to NASA, single-aisle aircraft account for nearly half of aviation emissions worldwide.

Professor Drury said a slight weight reduction can result in significant fuel savings.

“Basically, the trusses support thinner wings that make the aircraft more fuel efficient,” he said.

“The difference between a Boeing 737-800 and a MAX 8 in fuel efficiency is about 18 per cent.

“Using this type of aircraft, they’re looking at reducing … fuel consumption and emissions by up to 30 per cent.

“Compared to today’s aircraft, that’s a huge saving.”

So when might we see these planes in Australian skies?

NASA has labelled the aircraft a “high-risk technology” and has said it’s not a commercial development people should expect to see in planes flying today, but Professor Drury is optimistic we’ll see green planes in Australian skies “sooner rather than later”.

“Skytrans is working with Stralis [Energy] on a hydrogen battery-powered aircraft for use up in the Northern Territory or northern Queensland,” he said.

“They’ve bought a fleet of six already, and they’re hoping to have it in use by 2025.”

Professor Rico Merkert, chair in transport and supply chain management at the University of Sydney told TND: “This is not US specific but a global development.”

“Boeing in Australia is also very active and engine manufacturers as well as every other segment in the aviation supply chain are actively involved in projects and strategies aiming at decarbonising the aviation sector.”

Reducing Australia’s carbon emissions

There are various developments in zero-emission aircraft, ranging from sustainable aviation fuel to green hydrogen and electric aircraft.

“This is no longer futuristic, it is happening today and a lot more very soon,” Professor Merkert said.

“Electric aircraft have seen a substantial boost globally for short-range flying.

“I see them coming to Australia in the short to medium term – sooner than most people think.”

Sydney Seaplanes ordered 50 eVTOL aircraft from Eve Air Mobility last year.

Regional airline Rex will trial the use of its Saab aircraft with retrofitted electric engines on short flights of under one hour as soon as 2024.

“We will be doing trials in 2024, with a real aircraft, where we’ll swap out the existing engine, which burns jet fuel,” Rex deputy chairman John Sharp told the ABC last year.

“And we’ll put in an electric motor that will be supported by a combination of both batteries and hydrogen,” he said.

Virgin Australia’s alliance partner, United Airlines, agreed to buy 100 ES-19 electric planes from Heart Aerospace in 2021.

Heart’s ES-19 aircraft will produce zero operational emissions since it will run on batteries rather than jet fuel and electric motors instead of traditional engines.

The ES-19 aircraft will have 19 seats, be larger than any of its all-electric rivals, and be designed to run on the same kinds of batteries as electric cars.

It is expected to be certified for commercial flight by 2026.

Virgin has not entered into formal agreements with industry manufacturers but regularly reviews and liaises with the industry.

Electric aircraft will be limited to short and medium flights for the  foreseeable future due to their weight, cost, lack of storage capacity and propulsive power for take-off of very large aircraft, according to Professor Merkert.

“For long-haul flights, sustainable aviation fuel and green hydrogen or ideally hybrid – electric and hydrogen – will be the future,” he said.

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