The Techiest Ways NASA Flies With You Everyday

NASA technology is all over current airplanes.

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NASA's techie ways

As many of you know, NASA just doesn’t focus developing high-tech tools for spacecraft, it also specializes in a number of such tools for aircraft, large and small. The space agency recently took a look at some of the technology it has developed for aircraft and we’ve added a few others.

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Icing detection

Ice on an aircraft’s wings can be devastating to flight. The Icing Research Tunnel at NASA's Glenn Research Center is used to simulate the formation of ice on aircraft surfaces during flight. Cold water is sprayed into the tunnel and freezes on the test model.

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Flights of software

NASA’s Langley Research Center conducts studies to help reshape the future of American air travel. Over the next decade or so, the FAA will transition the country's air traffic control network from a limited ground-based system of radar sites to an expanded space-based system of satellites, helping to move the ever-increasing volume of American air traffic in and out of the nation's airports more quickly and safely.

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Starting in the 1970s, NASA began developing sophisticated computer codes that could accurately predict the flow of fluids, such as the flow of air over an aircraft’s wing or fuel through a space shuttle’s main engine. Those ideas and codes became what’s known as Computational Fluid Dynamics, which today is considered a vital tool for the study of fluid dynamics and the development of new aircraft. CFD reduces the time and cost required for designing and testing nearly any type of aircraft.

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The world is flat in the cockpit

During the 1970s and 1980s, NASA created and tested the concept of an advanced cockpit configuration that replaced dial and gauge instruments with flat panel digital displays. NASA said the digital displays presented information more efficiently and provided the flight crew with a more integrated, easily understood picture of the vehicle situation. Glass cockpits are in use on military, commercial and general aviation aircraft, and were part of NASA’s space shuttle fleet.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA helped develop and flight test a digital “fly-by-wire” system to replace heavier, less reliable hydraulics systems and control linkages with a lighter system using a digital computer and electric wires. NASA said the system sends signals from the pilot to the control surfaces of the aircraft, adding redundancy and improving control.

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REUTERS/Alex Wong/Pool

Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing (V/STOL)

From the 1950s through the 1990s, NASA led development of an engine system that could transition a vehicle from helicopter-like vertical flight for takeoffs and landings to conventional forward flight. NASA’s role in developing a nozzle design that could deflect thrust from the engines to change directions, called “thrust vectoring,” helped gain acceptance for the concept used on the AV-8 Harrier jet that flies in both U.S. and British military services.

Here, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks during a news conference with A MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor V/STOL aircraft in the background.

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REUTERS/Blake Pembroke Sell

That’s smart

From the 1970s through the 1990s, NASA and the U.S. Air Force conducted joint research on whether a flight control system built on an artificial neural network could help pilots recover from loss of control situations. Flight tests proved that Intelligent Flight Control System or IFCS, which backs up the digital fly-by-wire system—could automatically and instantly reconfigure an aircraft to help pilots retain control. (IFCS is currently used on the F-18 E/F Super Hornet as seen here in the Blue Angels squadron.)

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REUTERS/Michael Spooneybarger

What a drag

According to NASA, in the 1950s, NASA scientist Richard Whitcomb discovered several solutions to key aerodynamics challenges. One of the most revolutionary was the “area rule,” a concept that helped aircraft designers avoid the disruption in air flow and resulting drag caused by the attachment of the wings to the fuselage. By using the area rule, aircraft designers for decades have been able to make aircraft fly more efficiently at high speeds.

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Lightning doesn’t strike twice…well maybe

During the 1970s and 1980s, NASA conducted extensive research and flight tests to identify the conditions that cause lightning strikes and the effects of in-flight strikes on aircraft. NASA’s knowledge base was used to improve lightning protection standards for aircraft electrical and avionics systems. Here is the lightning protection system at Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39B.

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Software engineering

In the 1960s, NASA partnered with industry to develop a common generic software program that engineers could use to model and analyze different aerospace structures, including any kind of spacecraft or aircraft. Today, NASTRAN is an “industry-standard” tool for computer-aided engineering of all types of structures. NASA says NASTRAN help engineers determine stress, dynamics, and vibration of real-world, complex systems.


NASA first partnered with industry during the 1970s to conduct research on how to develop high-strength, nonmetallic materials that could replace heavier metals on aircraft. Gradually used to replace metals on parts of aircraft tails, wings, engines, cowlings and parts of the fuselage, composites reduce overall aircraft weight and improve operational efficiency. Here’s a video of a NASA composite rocket tank.

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REUTERS/U.S. Air Force Handout


From the 1970s through the 1990s, NASA played a vital role in developing rotatable engine nozzles that could deflect an engine’s thrust and maneuver the aircraft in directions other than parallel to its centerline. Thrust vectoring provides unprecedented maneuvering and control for extreme angles of attack in air-to-air combat. (It is currently used on the F-22 Raptor, pictured here.)

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REUTERS/Roosevelt Cassio

More code

During the 1990s, NASA said it developed a computer code that generates two-dimensional simulations of potential aeroelastic (AE) problems that can occur in jet engine blades. Such problems include flutter or fatigue that can eventually cause engine fan blades to stall or fail. With TURBO-AE, engineers can more efficiently design thinner, lighter, faster rotating blades for today’s jet engines built for higher performance.

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Supercritical Airfoil

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA scientist Richard Whitcomb led a team of researchers to develop and test a series of unique geometric shapes of airfoils or wing sections that could be applied to subsonic transports to improve lift and reduce drag. The resulting “supercritical airfoil” shape, when integrated with the aircraft wing, significantly improves the aircraft’s cruise efficiency.

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Get shorty

From the 1950s through the 1990s, NASA conducted research that resulted in an innovative wing/engine concept that significantly increased lift for aircraft taking off or landing on short runway spaces, such as the military’s C-17 transport plane pictured here. NASA said the system directs engine thrust to a set of external flaps to provide the extra lift. This externally-blown flap system also allows aircraft with heavy cargo loads to make slow, steep approaches and touch down precisely on limited runway surfaces.

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The movable wing

During the 1960s and 1970s, NASA researchers contributed to the development of a wing that can be moved on pivots to change its degree of sweep. The adjustable wing proved to be exceptionally aerodynamic at low speeds (the non-swept position) and at high speeds (the fully swept-back position).

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REUTERS/Paulo Whitaker


Perhaps the most obvious NASA invention of all. During the 1970s and 1980s, NASA studies led to the development of vertical extensions that can be attached to wing tips in order to reduce aerodynamic drag without having to increase wing span. NASA says winglets help increase an aircraft’s range and decrease fuel consumption.

Lots of wind

Through the decades, NASA’s expanded suite of wind tunnels has conducted valuable foundational testing in all speed regimes for areas such as vortex lift, maneuvering flaps performance, stall characteristics and avoidance, aerodynamics for low-level and high angle of attack maneuvers, flutter prediction and avoidance, spin characteristics and recovery, cruise performance and in-flight icing.

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Decision support

NASA developed another program known as Traffic management Advisor which is a decision-support tool that helps reduce air traffic delays in highly congested and complex airspace, such as the northeast corridor of the United States. NASA says components key to the software's capabilities are a new data-sharing architecture and a 'distributed scheduler'. The ability to share information across air traffic control sectors or centers allows air traffic managers to anticipate changes in traffic flow at their facility. The distributed scheduler enables traffic to be coordinated concurrently from multiple facilities.

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Collision avoidance

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center has developed algorithms that help aircraft avoid collisions. According to NASA, these terrain-mapping algorithms are designed to be easily integrated into an aircraft's existing onboard computing environment or into an electronic flight bag or mobile device application. In addition to its use within next-generation collision avoidance systems, the software can be adapted for use in a wide variety of applications, including aerospace satellites, automobiles, scientific research, marine charting systems, and medical devices.

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Ed Scearce, operations manager at NASA Langley's Air Traffic Operations Laboratory, is part of a team that's helping to reshape the future of American air travel.

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Old sawtooth

Chevrons are the sawtooth pattern seen on the trailing edges of some jet engine nozzles. As hot air from the engine core mixes with cooler air blowing through the engine fan, the shaped edges serve to smooth the mixing, which reduces turbulence that creates noise. The new Boeing 787 is among the most modern jets relying on chevrons to reduce engine noise levels. It sports chevrons on the nacelles, or fan housings. The Boeing 747-8 has chevrons on both the nacelles and inner core engine nozzles, NASA says.

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Damage control

NASA has spearheaded research into improving jet engine fan casings, ultimately discovering a cost-effective approach to manufacturing damage-tolerant fan cases that also boast significant weight reduction. In an aircraft, weight reduction translates directly into fuel burn savings, increased payload, and greater aircraft range. This technology increases safety and structural integrity; is an attractive, viable option for engine manufacturers, because of the low-cost manufacturing; and it is a practical alternative for customers, as it has the added cost saving benefits of the weight reduction.

Looking at you kid

NASA video on flight tools it as developed.