NASA Debugs Buggy Airplane Wings


NASA’s best minds have sometimes been accused of having their heads in the clouds, but they are also often concerned with more mundane things, like bugs and how to debug buggy airplane wings.

Why would bugs sticking on airplane wings be a topic of interest to anyone at NASA?

Bug residue creates a drag on airplane wings, which costs an estimated 5 percent more per year in fuel costs to airlines, that’s why. If the problem of debugging buggy airplane wings could ever be solved, it could could theoretically save the airlines $2.3 billion dollars.

The extra added layer of bug guts has a term used to describe it. According to NASA engineer Fayette Collier, it’s called a “turbulent boundary layer.”

Perhaps this is because it sounds more impressive when the mothers of NASA engineers in charge of solving this problem say: “My son is trying to solve the turbulent boundary layer problem airlines face,” rather than saying something like: “My son? Oh, he works with bug guts. Yes, it’s a real NASA job, or so he tells me….”

Seriously, bug residue on the wings of airplanes really is a huge fuel-waster on commercial flights. Fayette Collier leads a team that’s exploring ways to solve that problem.

Collier heads up the ERA Project. That isn’t, in this case, an acronym for either Earned Run Average or Equal Rights Amendment; instead, ERA stands for NASA’s giant Environmentally Responsible Aviation project.

The project’s headquarters is at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA, and their mission is to find novel ways to save fuel, reduce noise, and cut back on harmful nitrogen oxide emissions from air travel.

Collier and his team are tackling the problem of how to debug buggy airplane wings using a combination of manufacturing techniques and coatings.

According to Collier:

We found that it’s not one or the other, that you have to have them in concert. So we kind of bake in the coating while we are manufacturing the leading edge of the wing.”

Other projects involving airplanes that NASA are working on include developing futuristic designs like that of the remotely-piloted X-48. They’ve already flown more than 100 test flights of the remote piloted X-48 from NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.
According to NASA, the X-48’s hybrid wing body is both quiet and efficient.

Yet another NASA project is to design a propulsion system for planes which integrates the propulsion system on top of the aircraft. The engines would be on top of the plane instead of underneath the wings.

NASA engineers have culled out eight promising ideas from dozens of proposals, that will be tested in applied-technology, and real-world demonstrations. Corporations such as Boeing, Pratt & Whitney and GE are a few of the corporations working with NASA and positioned to benefit from the technology.

What are the costs and the benefits of debugging buggy airplane wings?

The ERA project is costing taxpayers $70 million dollars a year. The six-year development effort will continue through 2015, when it is scheduled to end.

By 2015, according to NASA researchers, they would like to reduce:

…aircraft drag by 8 percent, weight by 10 percent, engine specific fuel consumption by 15 percent, oxides of nitrogen emissions of the engine by 75 percent and noise by one-eighth of current standards.”

Discovering a non-stick bug surface, alone, could save airlines 5 percent in fuel costs and, as mentioned earlier in this article, theoretically save the airlines $2.3 billion dollars.

That’s a pretty good savings for figuring out a way to debug buggy airplane wings, and it’s just one of the many projects NASA engineers are working on.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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