Advances in aviation tend to focus on new engines and new ways to propel a mechanical object through the sky. At one extreme, the militaries of China, Russia and the U.S. are investing heavily to develop hypersonic weapons that could reach any point on the globe in an hour.
At the other end of the spectrum are electric motors, an aviation technology that has been around for a few decades. NASA has taken up the challenge with an all-electric experimental aircraft dubbed the X-57 “Maxwell,” using its Pleiades HPC cluster to model and simulate critical aerodynamic flight characteristics.
So far, the X-57 exists only as a visualization rendered by a supercomputer. The experimental flying machine includes 14 battery-powered motors and propellers. A dozen would be used for takeoffs and landings while two wingtip engines would provide propulsion and stability during level flight.
Meanwhile, NASA’s network of aeronautical researchers is running simulations on the Pleiades cluster to determine the flight characteristics of an all-electric aircraft. The accompanying image from a flight simulation shows the cruise phase of level flight, visualizing the aerodynamic pressures on aircraft surfaces.
According to NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Division, maroon represents high pressure, dark blue is low pressure. “Streamwise velocity,” or the speed and direction of air flowing toward the aircraft, is rendered near the X-57’s far-right propeller, with red signifying high velocity and green/blue depicting low.
The Pleiades simulations will be used by NASA engineers to create accurate computer models of aerodynamic performance. Those models will then be incorporated into the X-57 flight simulator, a key tool for aviation research.
“The aerodynamic model ensures that [the X-57’s] flight simulator performs in a manner consistent with actual flight and lets pilots test emergency scenarios and safe recovery measures,” NASA said.
The petascale Pleiades supercomputer built by Hewlett Packard Enterprises’ SGI unit is housed at the space agency’s advanced supercomputing facility at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. It serves as NASA’s HPC workhouse for modeling and simulation.
Pleiades has also been used by NASA to visualize abort scenarios for the space agency’s Orion spacecraft. The Orion project marks one of the first times NASA engineers have used large-scale flow simulations in a full-blown spacecraft analysis and design.
NASA also operates a remotely-piloted electric prototype called Helios out of the Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
As fast as the HPC cluster operates, aircraft driven by electric motors will be the tortoises of the sky. Slow, steady and zero in-flight emissions are among the goals. Designers are aiming to reduce aircraft energy consumption by a factor of five while powering the electric aircraft with renewable energy.
As one pilot said of electric aircraft, you are “not trying to get somewhere far off in a hurry, but just the beautiful sensation of being suspended in the air, of flight for its own sake.”
Top image courtesy NASA.