Bridging The Gap Between Wind Tunnels & Crewed Flight Testing

  • Jan 14, 2016 6:33am GMT

Aerospace testing can be costly and time consuming but a new modular, smaller remotely piloted aircraft offers NASA more affordable options for developing new aviation and space technologies. The Prototype-Technology Evaluation and Research Aircraft (PTERA), developed by Area-I, Inc., of Kennesaw, Georgia, is an inexpensive, flying laboratory bridging the gap between wind tunnels and crewed flight testing.

Being able to alter PTERA’s configuration allows cost-effective testing of designs that might otherwise be too dangerous or expensive to test with a full-scale, crewed aircraft.

PTERA was initially developed for a short-takeoff-and-landing airliner under the NASA Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. It was first flight tested in 2012 at Middle Georgia State University’s Eastman Campus under a Phase 1 SBIR contract.

Flight testing under a Phase 2 contract included flight maneuvers used to develop a PTERA simulation. With additional funding from the State of Georgia Center for Aerospace Innovation, the contract also provided for construction of two new PTERA-BL airframes, one for the company’s use and the other to be delivered to NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, Edwards, California. (see NASA Armstrong video below)

PTERA-BL aircraft are configured to resemble an 11%-scale Boeing 737 with a wingspan of 11.3-feet and 200-pound gross weight. They are powered by two 50-pound-thrust JetCat P200 engines, each PTERA has a semi-modular airframe on which the tail or wings and control surfaces can be modified.

In October 2014, Area-I delivered a PTERA to Armstrong, where it was flown for the first time just one year later on October 22, 2015. Researchers there hope to conduct more low-cost, low-risk flight evaluations of shape-memory alloys to control aircraft configuration, and possibly parabolic autonomous flight profiles for microgravity payloads such as Cubesats.

Video Nass / Photos Jim Ross NASA