NASA Social For LEAPTech At NASA Armstrong (Part Five)

All good things must come to an end. After four days of writing about the NASA Social a week ago, showcasing the LEAPTech project at the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, it’s time to wrap things up.

Remember, you can see what LEAPTech is (“Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology”), go along as we went out onto the Rogers Dry Lake to see a LEAPTech live data collection run using HEIST, visit the F-15 hangar as well as the Subscale Flight Research Lab and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle.

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Our next stop was at the Global Hawk hangar. These vehicles are modified military remotely-piloted vehicles that can be loaded up with whatever instruments are needed to gather data for extended periods of time. Often the data comes from places that are unsafe for a piloted aircraft, such as in or near or above a hurricane, thunderstorm, or volcano. Many of the observations that the Global Hawks are used for are done in concert with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study extreme weather events and to gather data to make better weather predictions. While the Global Hawk is not rugged enough to fly into a hurricane, it can be fitted with a whole cluster of radiosonde buoys which it drops into a hurricane from above, monitoring the data as the buoys descend through the storm.

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This panoramic view shows how long the wings are on the Global Hawk. The almost glider-like wings combined with a high-efficiency jet engine allow the Global Hawk to stay in the air for up to twenty-four hours. That requires three separate shifts of controllers and remote pilots, who can be based out of Edwards on the US west coast, Wallops on the US east coast, or in a remote mobile station.

The design similarities to a glider give the Global Hawk a great glide ratio, meaning that it can fly a long way if there’s an engine failure. That, combined with the fact that the Global Hawk flies at up to 65,000 feet, well above the commercial airliners, means that in an emergency it can reach a wide range of potential landing sites. While nominally controlled remotely, in an emergency that results in a communication failure, the Global Hawk has pre-programmed contingency procedures and limited autonomous abilities to keep itself safe and out of the way of other aircraft.

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Frank Butler is the Global Hawk program manager and was gracious enough to spend some time with us answering questions about the program.

While we were in here, where “here” is a big, hollow, echo-y, metal hangar, we heard two sonic booms. There is a high-speed corridor over the base in which military and test aircraft can be cleared to break Mach One, rattling those on the ground beneath them. Frank didn’t seem too bothered, but the rest of us jumped pretty good. That big, hollow, metal hangar really rings and rattles when the sonic boom hits! (I love hearing sonic booms, by the way. I know, big duh, huh?)

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Our last stop was in the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge project. Back in November we saw this program at the beginning of its testing. Now it’s finished that initial step and they’re getting ready to move on to the next, longer, and more complex step.

Also back in November, a tweet of mine (with a view very similar to this one) was picked up by CNN Online. My fifteen minutes of fame!

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The ACTE test pilot, Tim Williams, was there to answer our questions, as well as members of the engineering and design team. ACTE could be another revolutionary technology in how planes fly, replacing today’s flaps with surfaces that can flex and bend more like a bird’s wing. Not only could this be yet another factor in significantly reducing aircraft noise, but it could also make planes more efficient, reducing fuel used by several percent.

In the first testing phase, the flexible section of the wing was set to one position before each test flight was performed to collect data. In the next phase, a much more sophisticated and complex structure will be installed on the wing, which will allow them to not only change the shape in flight as needed, but also to change it in multiple sections. You might need the outside twisted up or down while the inside twists down or up, for example. This could move aerodynamic loading off of the wingtips where vortices are formed and drag is created and on to the wings near the plane’s body, where they’re much more efficient.

This next phase will be a three-year project but it should be fascinating to watch.

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Finally, I want to thank all of the speakers who shared their passion and projects with us. This is JoeBen Bevirt, the founder of Joby Aviation. Joby is one of the key partners in private industry working closely with NASA Armstrong to develop the LEAPTech system.

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We also got to meet and ask questions from a whole lineup of Joby and NASA Armstrong engineers and scientists. Here, from left to right, are Benjamin Schiltgen, David Cox, Bruce Cogan, Jeffrey Viken, Sean Clarke (Principal Investigator, designed the LEAPTech power train), Trevor Foster, Mark Moore (Principal Investigator), Andrew Gibson, JoeBen Bevirt (Joby Aviation founder), and Scott Berry (Joby Aviation).

Some of the “big picture” ideas put forward by JoeBen Bevirt and Mark Moore are truly revolutionary. (I’ll probably share them a bit and rant and speculate at some later date.) These are not people who dream small dreams.

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I’ve mentioned how much I love the work of Robert McCall. This is the second work of his that I’ve found in the NASA Armstrong buildings.

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This was in a lobby entrance area to one of the buildings. If I worked here, I imagine that I might often be found at lunchtime, just sitting and admiring all of the wonderful details here. Unless there was an airplane flying around, in which case I would be out watching it.

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Following the end of the NASA Social, after we got brought back off base and to our cars, some of us got together for dinner with our NASA Social hosts and hostesses. This particular place (Domingo’s Seafood & Mexican Restaurant) has been a haunt to astronaut crews training at Edwards and returning to Earth during Shuttle landings at Edwards. The walls contain many signed pictures of astronauts, test pilots, and flight crews. The fajitas were HOT, the atmosphere was fantastic, and the company was even better!


As always, a million thanks to the NASA Armstrong staff, lead by Kevin Rohrer, Kate Squires, and Kate Squires. They’re the ones who make these spectacular events happen and make it look seamless. (They are powerful wizards!) I also want to thank all of my fellow NASA Social attendees, who allowed me to pick their brains and learn from their experience as well, while also making new friends.

I look forward to my sixth NASA Social – soon.

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