Things in flight do entrance some of us.  So news of a way to enhance the fuel economy is welcome news.  Whether it’s the joy of watching the maneuvers in mid air or simply getting somewhere at lower cost to just cutting the effluent produced – more distance per fuel unit is a good thing.

NASA Dryden’s versatile F/A-18 Full Scale Advanced Systems Testbed (FAST) aircraft recently completed a series of flights that explored reducing fuel consumption during cruise flight conditions.  The FAST looks and is one more step in the U.S. line for fighter planes.  These are the top fuel hogs – a great place to learn how to save fuel.

NASA's FA 18 Full Scale Advanced Systems Testbed Aircraft.  Click image for more info.

NASA’s FA 18 Full Scale Advanced Systems Testbed Aircraft. Click image for more info.

NASA has only made small modifications to existing control laws and mechanisms in the aircraft’s flight control computer as part of the Intelligent Control for Performance (ICP) research project.  Special computer code called a peak-seeking algorithm was programmed into the aircraft’s Airborne Research Test System computer. This code enables the computer to precisely adjust flight control surface deflections in order to reduce aerodynamic drag.

Strap in – the preliminary ICP flight results indicate that a three to five-percent reduction in fuel burn was achieved compared to the baseline trim state at two flight conditions. The ICP technique shows lots of promise for reducing fuel burn in large transport aircraft in the future.

Large jetliners and cargo aircraft consume most of their fuel during the cruise portion of flight, so optimizing fuel consumption would reduce costs and pollution. For NASA, developing new control system methods like this helps meet the agency’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project goals of reduced fuel burn and emissions.

Next up there’s a new novel “thin film” sensor manufactured by TAO Systems, Inc. coming out.  For another experiment planned to fly next summer on the FAST F/A-18 the sensor is currently being applied to one of the aircraft’s wing surfaces. This technology will allow real-time characterization of the airflow over the wing. This sensor’s capability could lead to considerable weight reduction, fuel savings, and flight safety enhancement in future aircraft designs by revealing the actual flight loads on an aircraft’s wing to help ensure that design loads are not exceeded.

Today engineering experience, computer models, and wind tunnel work with models determine the final designs for wing surfaces before the flight tests.  The new sensor would make it possible for full size examples in actual conditions to gather data.  That would lead to affirmations, corrections and opportunities for engineers and designers.

The new thin film sensor technology could be used reduce the effects of gusts and turbulence on an aircraft when coupled with appropriate flight control algorithms.  Handling turbulence without having one’s drink, or other items suddenly floating about will be a welcome improvement to passenger air travel.

Three to five percent doesn’t sound like a whole lot.  But with the financial precariousness of airlines at the mercy of the oil market becoming an ever more desultory experience for travelers, a little relief will be welcome.

Airlines don’t realize their losses.  Your humble writer for one assiduously avoids air travel several times a year just due to the discomfort of crammed seats. If airlines make a little money maybe they’ll improve the experience enough for many of us to fly again.


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