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NASA and the “Ultra-Cool, Mega-Efficient Electric Aircraft”

October 10, 2011

Thus far, I have not highlighted an article or post from Network World. For that matter, neither have I discussed NASA or aircraft of any type. And especially not “ultra-cool, mega-efficient electric aircraft.” [Yes, here as always, italics are mine and are used to signify quotes from the article.] So this post will hit firsts on many of those fronts. The post is ambitiously titled “NASA, Google award $1.35M prize for ultra-cool, mega-efficient electric aircraft,” and is authored by Michael Cooney, who is @nwwlayer8 on Twitter.

Evidently, NASA and Google have teamed up to create something called the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Green Flight Challenge. The article indicates that Google sponsored the challenge financially. Cooney explains that “According to CAFÉ, to win the Green Flight Challenge, an aircraft must exceed an equivalent fuel efficiency of 200 passenger miles per gallon (mpge).” To put that in perspective, “Typical general-aviation aircraft have fuel efficiencies in the range of 5-50 mpge.  Large passenger aircraft are in the 50-100 mpge range, depending on passenger/cargo load. Green Flight Challenge aircraft also must have an average speed of at least 100 mph over a 200-mile race circuit; achieve a takeoff distance of less than 2,000 feet to clear a 50-foot obstacle; and deliver a decibel rating of less than 78 dBA at full-power takeoff, as recorded from 250 feet away.”

Out of fourteen teams that registered to compete, apparently only three were able to meet the minimum requirements to demonstrate their aircraft and fly it in the final competition. The winner was the “Taurus G4 by Pipistrel-USA.com. The twin fuselage motor glider features a 145 kW electric motor, lithium-ion batteries, and retractable landing gear.” The Taurus met the challenge by flying “200 miles in less than two hours on less than one gallon of fuel or electric equivalent.”

All that sounds pretty impressive to me. As domestic commercial aviation relies increasingly on smaller aircraft and and regional airports to handle traffic volume economically, the ability to use small and environmentally advantageous airplanes will only become more and more important. This article doubtless didn’t attract a lot of attention, but it’s clearly indicative of a key national direction in fuel-efficient air transport. This and other competitions sponsored by NASA and its partners will help develop new commercial aviation capabilities for years to come, not to mention ultra-cool new headlines.

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