Small, efficient aircraft for passenger and cargo transport will become significantly more important in the future. Commuter aircraft are already playing a vital role in connecting remote areas. The 2019 NASA/DLR Design Challenge 2019 asked students in Germany and the USA to design their own visions for a small aircraft. The concept had to accommodate passengers and cargo, be efficient and environmentally friendly, as well as being capable of changing between autonomous flight and pilot-controlled operation. The University of Stuttgart’s team, which came up with the pioneering ‘HyBird’ design, and the team from the University of California, Davis, which designed the BW-1 ‘Big Skipper’, were honoured as the winners during a joint symposium with renowned aeronautics researchers at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia.
“This Design Challenge is something not only for the brain, but also for the heart,” said Rolf Henke, DLR Executive Board Member for Aeronautics Research while addressing the students at the symposium. “Tell your fellow students that such an exercise is worth it, that coming up with results gives you a sense of satisfaction, that working in such engaged groups provides added value and that being here with DLR and NASA representatives could be a once in a lifetime reward.”
“These are really exciting times for NASA Aeronautics with the work we are doing to help make urban air mobility possible, build our X-59 quiet supersonic technology aircraft, and explore designs for a possible electric propulsion aircraft demonstrator. The NASA/DLR Design Challenge is a great way to engage students in finding their own solutions for the real challenges we face in these areas that will transform flight for all of us,” said Dana Gould, Deputy Director of the Aeronautics Research Directorate at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Electric take-off for short runways
The award-winning HyBird design from the University of Stuttgart’s team of students – led by Florian Will, Jonathan Stober, Felix Ladwein, Jonas Mangold and Michael Lang – is a versatile all-rounder. It enables environment-friendly connections to remote areas at a time when increasing demands are being placed on air transport against the background of climate change. Nine passengers or, when seats are folded and stored away, one tonne of cargo can fit into the aircraft, which stands out due to its unusual V-shaped tail unit and the four large, efficiently-positioned propellers on the wing and tail tips. A Coandă high-lift system with active circulation control, as well as an additional electrical boost from batteries, enable a short take-off. In flight, two gas turbines supply the propellers and on-board systems of the hybrid aircraft with power. One turbine can be turned off during cruise flight, making the operation particularly efficient and low emission. HyBird can take off, fly and land autonomously for cargo transport, while the GPS, Radar and Lidar provide information about its surroundings. When transporting passengers, the pilot is supported by these systems. On the ground, the aircraft taxies silently, using electric landing gear motors. All the technologies have been selected in such a way that rapid market entry could be possible by 2025.
Team member Michael Lang said: “This was a chance of a lifetime for us to realise our creativity in the field of aircraft design. We hope that aeronautics will benefit from such concepts in the future and thus become more environmentally friendly.”
In NASA’s part of the competition, the team from the University of California, Davis, impressed with the BW-1 ‘Big Skipper’ design. The efficient, twin-turboprop aircraft has custom-designed, low-noise propellers, and wings with an optimised laminar flow design for increased cruise efficiency. Lightweight composite materials further increase the efficiency of the aircraft, which is also equipped with autonomous flight systems. What sets the BW-1 ‘Big Skipper’ apart is its capability to more than halve the usual take-off and landing distances and reduce fuel consumption by a third.
NASA/DLR Design Challenge 2018/2019 overview
This year the students once again had to meet the demanding requirements of the jury with regard to the performance of their designs. Their aircraft configurations had to be capable of using very short runways, while also having an acceptable cruising speed. New technologies from a wide range of disciplines had to be integrated into the designs, including an examination of concepts that would enable changes from passenger to freight transport to be made at short notice. They also considered whether a combination of passenger flights with pilots and automated, unmanned freight flights might increase the appeal of such aircraft for airlines.
Five teams consisting of around 40 students submitted innovative designs. The kick-off meeting took place in April 2019 at the DLR site in Braunschweig. This included an introduction to the task and a tour of the site. The German expert jury, which included the directors of various aviation-related DLR institutes, announced the winning team after the closing presentations in August 2019 at ZAL (Center of Applied Aeronautical Research) in Hamburg. The winners travelled to visit NASA in September 2019, where they presented their design alongside that of the winning US team as part of a symposium of aeronautics experts.
Rolf Henke started the NASA/DLR Design Challenge together with NASA’s Associate Administrator for Aeronautics, Jaiwon Shin. The 2018/2019 competition was the third such event. Every year, it offers students at technical universities in Germany and the USA the chance to work on pressing real-life issues in modern aeronautics.