Friday, July 12, 2013

NASA tackles small, but huge problem: Dead bug residue on airliner wings

It may sound like a small problem, but it is not. NASA said on Wednesday that it has narrowed down its "bug challenge" to eight. The "challenge" is an attempt to exterminate a huge problem: bugs sticking to airplane wings.

While some might have a quizzical look after hearing of the latest research, others -- thinking about the way an airplane wing / airfoil works in terms of keeping a plane aloft -- will see the problem. The residue from dead insects disturbs the flow of air over the wing, reducing lift, and costing a lot of fuel.

NASA engineer Fayette Collier, who is leading the team, explained:
What those bug adherences do is they cause an aerodynamic disturbance on the wing. It's called turbulent boundary layer.
The project Collier leads is named the Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project. Headquartered at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., its mission is more than just exterminating bugs: it aims to find ways to save fuel, reduce noise, and reduce harmful nitrogen oxide emissions during air travel.

NASA has been using a drone as part of the experiment.

A fix for the "small" bug problem could create huge benefits. NASA said that a non-stick bug surface could save five percent in terms of fuel use. Reportedly, U.S. airlines used 16 billion gallons of fuel in 2012, so that modification to airliners alone could save the industry $2.3 billion dollars.

Demonstrations of proposed technology and will continue through 2015 when the six-year development program is scheduled to end.

These changes won't come soon, though. NASA says it hopes to see "mature" technologies for aircraft entering service by 2025 that will 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."

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