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NASA Head Suggests Future Planes Will Be Safer Without Pilots

In a video conversation with EAA leader Jack Pelton, Jim Bridenstine discusses autonomous flight, supersonics, electrics and more, some of it quite controversial.

In a video conversation with EAA leader Jack Pelton, Jim Bridenstine said future planes will be safer without pilots.
In a video conversation with EAA leader Jack Pelton, Jim Bridenstine said future planes will be safer without pilots.

In a conversation with Jack Pelton, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, as part of EAA’s Spirit Of Aviation Week, shared some views on the future of flight, a future that NASA is actively supporting. Many pilots will find some of that vision exciting. Many others might find some of it alarming.

Bridenstine, who’s a former F/A-18 Top Gun pilot and homebuilder, started out talking about electric propulsion, which he sees as the future of flight. He spoke about NASA’s X-57 demonstrator, which is a conventional Tecnam light twin turned into an electric plane using multiple motors on each wing. One model has 14 motors, seven per side, with two larger, more powerful motors mounted on the wingtips. Some of the problems that NASA is working on are foundational, such as the need for greater power density from batteries, which are as energy dense as gasoline. He rightly points out that cutting weight for equal density is a prime goal, whereas automobiles can more easily handle the weight gain.

Another focus, he said, is supersonic research, and he referred to NASA’s supersonic demonstrator project, the X-59, which is attempting to create an aircraft shape that would mitigate sonic booms to the point where “the boom is sufficiently undisruptive that it can be certified by the FAA for overland flights.”

As far as commercial flying is concerned, the NASA head said that future airliners would need to cut emissions, by up to 80%, in fact, and that might be done, he suggested, though design innovation, including very high aspect ratio (sailplane like) wings with giant struts (which he referred to as “trusses”), by coming up with lower weight structures and by using more efficient engines that have smaller cores, and hence, can accommodate larger bypass sections.

NASA is also working on future drone networks, trying to figure out how to “integrate unmanned systems into the National Airspace [System].” This includes a program designed to see how small drones could be integrated into the NAS at altitudes below 400 feet for uses such as package delivery and organ transplant transport. Great traffic density would presumably create traffic management challenges greater than we currently can accommodate. “You’re not going to be able to manage that with air traffic controllers,” he said, and proposed privately operated traffic management organizations that would be regulated by the FAA.

Bridenstine then went on discuss the challenges of integrating unpiloted aircraft into controlled airspace, the greatest challenges being developing see-and-avoid technologies and establishing robust communications. 

When asked by Pelton how such future systems would accommodate piloted planes, such as Pelton’s Stearman, when flying in uncontrolled airspace into a future NAS with autonomous aircraft, Bridenstine said that it would largely be the responsibility of the unpiloted systems to “see” and “avoid. “

You can get better capabilities than what a human has. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s absolutely true. When you put sensors on an unmanned system, you’re not only looking straight ahead, and left to right, you can see 360 degrees all the time and you’re getting all that data ingested into your computer modeling system. You could make the argument that in the future it will be safer to fly an uncrewed aircraft than a crewed aircraft.


Finally, Bridenstine spoke about, at Pelton’s urging about space, including a return to the Moon and future Mars exploration, which will soon see a helicopter deployed there. Check out the video to hear it all.


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