NASA’s associate administrator for the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, Lisa Porter, was a featured speaker at the American Helicopter Society International’s Forum 62 last month in Phoenix. A standing-room only crowd packed the room in which she spoke. Rotor & Wing herein excerpts her comments there.
"Very recently we have been reminded of the critical role and function that helicopters play in terms of rescue. We think about Katrina and how vital our helicopters were in that endeavor . . . On the military side, I don’t need to tell this audience just how critical helicopters are.
"But as we look ahead to what we need to do to enable applications, particularly in the civilian realm and to broaden their use and applicability, I think we all recognize there are several challenges we have to overcome. Increase in flight range, in cruise speed, in payload capacity. Decrease in external and internal noise and vibration. Of course, when we work on problems for the civilian sector, they often an application to military challenges and vice versa.
"We recognize that we need to make sure we work often together, and NASA and the Army have a great history of doing and we intend to continue that.
"So let me tell you a little bit about NASA’s restructured aeronautics program. Let me start off with the three principles that are guiding the restructuring effort. When you talk about restructuring a program, it is absolutely critical that you start with guiding principles that you will follow regardless of budget. These enable you to react regardless of what your budget is. If you don’t have principles to start off with, then it is your budget that is the tail that wags the dog, and that’s how you end up getting very whip-lashed as you watch as people try to change directions to accommodate budgets. You have to start with principles. This is what introduces stability.
"The first [guiding principle for restructuring NASA’s aeronautics program] states that we will dedicate ourselves to the mastery and intellectual stewardship of the core competencies of aeronautics for the nation in all flight regimes. All flight regimes means subsonic through hypersonic. Subsonic, of course, includes both fixed-wing and rotary-wing.
"The second is that we will focus our research in areas that are appropriate to NASA’s unique capabilities. We’re going to play to our strengths. We are not going to conduct research that is duplicative of research occurring in other agencies, nor are we going to compete with other agencies. We will work with other agencies, but we will do so in a manner where we leverage each other’s strengths. That’s what the taxpayer expects of us, that we maximize what we get in terms of our investment of taxpayer dollars. Also, we will not conduct research that is more appropriately conducted in the private sector. Again, we should not be competing or duplicating. We should be complementing and enhancing. So, with our focus on the research that requires long-term commitment, that is where we can do the most good in terms of our partnership with industry.
"The third principle speaks to something that you may or may not have been exposed to: NGATS, the next-generation air transportation system. This is a vision that has been articulated by something called the Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO) and it addresses a challenge that has become so important to Congress as well as to the White House. Congress actually passed a law called Vision 100 in which they called for the existence the Joint Planning and Development Office to come up with a vision for the future air transportation system and then a plan to execute that vision. The JPDO is comprised of NASA, FAA, DOD, the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security, as well as the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. This is a multi-agency endeavor on a grand scale.
"The Next Generation Air Transportation System’s vision is one that talks about what the future air transportation system looks like in 2025. It is very revolutionary in its scope and breadth. It’s going to require a tremendous amount of cooperation and collaboration among these agencies, as well as a vision to make sure we sustain our commitment.
"People have projected that we are going to need to double or perhaps triple the current system’s capacity to accommodate the demands of the future. Obviously an air traffic management system has to be developed that can accommodate such a growth. However, it does not matter if you increase your air traffic management capabilities by a factor of two or three if you do nothing to address the challenges of the vehicles within that airspace system. So the research portfolio we put together when we talk about addressing the fundamental research needs of the Next-Generation Air Transportation System has to be mindful of those challenges–noise, emissions, fuel efficiency and, of course, safety. All of those things have to be important components of our research portfolio. So that’s what drives the third principle.
"Given those three principles, we put together four programs. The Fundamental Aeronautics program is going to conduct long-term, cutting-edge research in the core competencies of aeronautics in all flight regimes, producing knowledge and data capabilities and design tools that are applicable across a broad range of air vehicles.
"The three other programs are the Aviation Safety program, the Airspace Systems program and Aeronautics Test program.
"I want to make an important point about the Fundamental Aeronautics program. I listed explicitly as a product knowledge. The reason I did that is because, unfortunately, in recent years there has been an increasing amount of individuals who have decided that the way to assess the quality and value of NASA research as it relates to enhancing vehicle capabilities is to apply a metric that is completely inappropriate. That metric is something called the Technology Readiness Level–an appropriate metric when it is applied as a quantitative measure of the maturity level of a particular technology.
"When you think about some of the greatest contributions from NASA’s aeronautics program, it’s very difficult to say what Technology Readiness Level number you could assign. It’s really important to remind the community that the way we should be judged is by the quality of the knowledge that we produce. The other things we talk about–the data, the design tools, the technologies and devices that result from our research–are manifestations of the knowledge. But knowledge is the key product of our research.
"The example I like to give to explain the difference between looking at things in terms of Technology Readiness Levels and looking at the quality of the knowledge is from the 1920s–NACA’s engine cowling design work. It was very clear that the success of that research was not the production of a device, but rather the advancement of our fundamental understanding of aeronautical design. Designers couldn’t just go stick a cowling on an engine and expect it to work. They had to be able to design it for their particular vehicle. It was because we understood the fundamental underpinnings of that device, how it worked and how to apply it that it was successfully applied to a broad range of aircraft and had a tremendously positive impact. That is mastery.
"The Aviation Safety program is important for this group as well, even though it’s separated from the rotorcraft research project in Fundamental Aero. There is a lot of overlap in what we’re going to be doing in these programs. We are taking a proactive approach to our safety programs’ construct. We’re not just going to be asking what are the challenges of our legacy fleet. We’re also asking what are the challenges we anticipate in the next airspace system, the new aircraft coming on line that are more complex, have more sensors, with more aircraft in the system, etc. So our safety research program will be very proactive.
"Let me talk a little bit about the research philosophy we’re adopting across all projects and all programs. It’s a very simple idea, but very, very important. If you want to get serious about revolutionary capabilities at the system level, whether you’re talking about vehicles or the airspace in which those vehicles reside, you have to get serious about investing in foundational physics and modeling, the research we conduct to provide the fundamental understanding and underpinnings upon which our discipline-based research relies.
"Our discipline research in turn becomes integrated at multi-disciplinary levels and in turn that folds up into system-level capabilities. An important element of our research pyramid is that it is integrated. All the research we conduct at the base is being driven by a desire at the system level to achieve something that we can’t achieve today. The knowledge and capabilities we develop and enhance at the base flow up. The manner in which we prioritize that research flows down from the top. It has to be an integrated endeavor. If you isolate off the base of the pyramid (and some people have argued that you need to do that), you cause a big problem when you talk about aeronautics because aeronautics is inherently a multi-disciplinary endeavor. That’s why we enjoy it, because we have to learn a lot about a lot of different things and learn how to tie those different things together. If we isolate the research at the base from the top, we destroy that linkage and that’s not productive for aeronautics.
"How do you map this philosophy to rotorcraft? Well, at the top of the pyramid, ultimately what we’d like to be able to do is not build rotorcraft that we know how to build but rather build rotorcraft we would like to build based on the requirements we would like to achieve. To do that, we have to get a lot smarter about how we design rotorcraft and our design tools have to be a lot better. We have to invest in areas like propulsion and aeromechanics integration, super-integrated vehicle management, integrated rotorcraft design and integrated experimental systems. But to be able to advance those, we have to, in turn, invest in areas like aeromechanics, flight dynamics, drive systems, structures and materials. But, oh, by the way, to really get smart about that, we’ve got to go lower and invest in areas like fluid mechanics, noise-propagation physics, control theory, damage-fracture mechanics, etc. So all the research flows up and down in that way.
"I’ll give you a couple of snapshots of the kind of research you can expect coming out of our rotorcraft program in the near future. This doesn’t cover everything.
"In aeromechanics, we’ll be focusing on advanced predictive methods for rotorcraft performance, wake position and strength and air loads prediction. We’ll also be looking at advanced concepts, such as on-blade controls and active flow control, and we’ll be exploring those things at the fundamental level. Everything we do, of course, will be integrated with high-quality experimental work. It makes no sense to talk about developing predictive capabilities if you have no means of assessing your capability to predict.
"In propulsion, we’re going to do things like innovative engine designs for high loads and harsh operating environments; innovative, lightweight, reliable and quiet transmission and gearbox designs; enabling technologies for advanced flow or variable speed rotors, and advanced analytical tools for mechanical component analysis.
"A couple of other areas are acoustics, one of my favorites. Obviously, there’s still a lot we can’t do in acoustics. We have a hard time predicting the noise coming off a rotorcraft in various flight regimes–high-speed, maneuvering flight, descending flight, low-speed flight. All of these flight regimes create different types of noise profiles that are very difficult to predict and requires a lot of fundamental research. We intend to invest in that area.
"And finally, experimental techniques–we absolutely have to get better about the measurements that we can make. So experimental techniques are, in themselves, a research area we have to invest in.
"How do we see ourselves partnering as a community, so that industry, NASA and academia all work together to advance our capabilities and to enable revolutionary, system-level capabilities at the end.
"I want to remind you that NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate is not an operational mission directorate. We don’t build rotorcraft or aircraft to fight wars, to protect borders. We don’t build them to sell. We provide the fundamental knowledge and underpinning that sustain partners who do those things. So we need to work closely with those partners to ensure that the research we conduct enables them to achieve the systems capabilities they need to meet their objectives.
"On the government side in rotorcraft, we participate in a strong collaboration with the Army. On the industry side, we’re looking for partnerships, what we call non-reimbursable cooperative agreements, in which industry comes to us and says, "Here’s what we can bring in terms of data and our systems-level knowledge," and NASA says, "Here’s the research we can conduct to ensure we push the cutting edge at the systems level in a way that makes sense." It’s important to know that the research we’re going to be conducting is pre-competitive. It’s research to benefit the broad community, not one particular company.
"We look to reach out to the community that conducts foundational research to help enhance our in-house capabilities and ensure that we really are maintaining cutting edge. We think about universities as playing a fundamental role, but there are also companies that conduct foundational research and they also will be eligible to compete for those funds.
"We have a four-step approach. First, we basically assessed our long-term research needs and goals. We established preliminary technical road maps to accomplish those goals. Then, in January, we released a Request For Information to industry trying to start partnerships of the type I just mentioned. We received something like 244 responses across all of the projects in aeronautics. Part of the reason we did it this way was to make sure we provide full and open access to information and opportunities with us. We didn’t want to go back just to the same old partners we’d always worked with.
"The third step is what we are finishing up right now. The research proposals with that information and response from industry have been written by our researchers, submitted and gone through a very rigorous preliminary review at NASA headquarters by experts from other government agencies. We’re now undergoing the final review, and we anticipate that will be completed very shortly.
"The final step is to issue NASA Research Announcements once we feel we have good proposals in place. They will be tied directly to the proposed plans.
"Two big bullets to take away from this. First of all, rotorcraft research is an important area of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate portfolio. If you get nothing else out of this, that is the message I want you to take away. And we look forward to our continued partnerships with the Defense Dept. and in particular with the U.S. Army for rotorcraft, and with industry, and with academia."