Inexperience Wanted

Student engineers answer NASA’s call to design the airplane of 2058.

The University of Miami’s QUEIA, for Quiet Ultra-Efficient Integrated Aircraft, has engines embedded in the top part of the trailing edge to increase lift. The high lift-to-drag ratio results in a lower stall speed, which translates to a take-off distance of only 1,579 feet, about a sixth that of the new Boeing 787. (QUEIA Team)

We don’t care how old you are, says NASA. If you can dream it up, show it to us. A huge flying wing that looks more manta ray than airplane? An airliner with a V-shaped tail and a brawny fuselage with hidden engines? A commuter airplane with forward swept wings, its cockpit off to one side like the flight deck in Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon?

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Don’t frown. You might fly in one someday, designed by someone who just got his driver’s license.

“We’ve been away from these [futuristic] concepts for too long,” says Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “If you Google ‘revolutionary aeronautics,’ if you Google ‘advanced aircraft configurations,’ what you get is that [NASA] essentially went out of this business in the late 1970s.”

Bushnell is describing the seventh annual aircraft design contest for college students, run by the agency's Fundamental Aeronautics Program. This year, 61 students from 14 colleges and universities worldwide answered the call, which asked for conceptual designs of an aircraft that would redefine flying 50 years from now—the way the Douglas DC-3 did in the 1930s.

Contest guidelines mandated that the airplane can carry up to 50,000 pounds of human or other cargo and operate at speeds equal to those of current airliners, between 595 and 625 mph. It should be able to take off and land on runways between 1,500 and 3,000 feet long, to make it available to thousands of short, underused airstrips. And because the theoretical airplane will fly in the year 2058, the contest requires that it burn alternative, environmentally friendly fuels, and do so more quietly than the engines of today.

For the sixth year in a row, NASA held a separate competition for high schoolers, with more relaxed guidelines (the students were asked to match the paradigm-shifting impact of the DC-3). Entries came in from more than 140 students in 50 schools and 15 nations.

Both contests aim to infuse NASA with fresh ideas and inspire a new generation of students to work in the aerospace sector. Entrants receive real feedback on their designs from the dozen NASA engineers, including Bushnell, who served as judges.

“As we go through the educational process, creativity and imagination can get sucked out of you,” says Bushnell. “I reviewed all the entries for both high school and college. The most imaginative ones were high school entries. We had a superb one from a high school kid in Singapore.”

That student, 18-year-old Aditya Singh, won in the category for ideas submitted by non-U.S. high schoolers. His proposal, a two-seat personal air vehicle he named the Dodo (see pictures of his design and others in the photo gallery at right), incorporates an array of modern concepts such as a reduced blended wing body, lightweight composite materials, and two horizontal electric motors to supplement a lightweight Wankel rotary engine.

“I’m personally obsessed with the idea of a personal air vehicle,” says Singh. “My first inspiration which got me down to serious thinking was the Green Goblin’s glider in Spider-Man. I’m sure such an idea can be exploited and taken further for the benefit of all. A quick glance at history shows us that humans consistently shift to technologies which make lives easier for them; in fact, better for them. From walking to bullock carts to cycles to trains to cars.... Aircraft will be the next revolution in everyday transportation.” Singh hopes to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next year to continue studying aeronautical engineering.

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