RETURN OF X-PLANES

April 22, 2017


In the April 2017 issue of “Machine Design” a fascinating article entitled “NASA’S Green Thumb for Green Aviation” was presented. This article was written by Carlos M. Gonzales and encouraged me to explore, at least through NASA’s web site, the status of their “X-Plane” program.  Aviation is definitely a growth industry. Millions upon millions of individuals travel each year for business, recreation, and tourism.  There is no doubt that aviation is the “Greyhound Bus” for the twenty-first century.

The aviation system is the high-speed transportation backbone of the United States and global economies. Global aviation is forecast to grow from today’s three point five (3.5) billion passenger trips per year to seven (7) billion passenger trips by the mid- 2030s, and to eleven (11) billion passenger trips by mid-century. Such growth brings with it the direct economic potential of trillions of dollars in the fields of manufacturing, operations and maintenance, and the high-quality jobs they support.

At the same time, international competition for leadership of this critical industry is growing, as more nations invest in developing their own aviation technology and industrial capabilities. Such massive growth also creates substantial operational and environmental challenges. For example, by mid-century the aviation industry will need to build and fly enough new aircraft to accommodate more than three times as many passenger trips while at the same time reducing total emissions by half from that new hardware. Moreover, large reductions in emissions and aircraft noise levels will be needed, if not mandated. To meet those demands, revolutionary levels of aircraft performance improvements – well beyond today’s technology – must be achieved. In terms of air traffic control and the National Airspace System, maintaining safe and efficient operations is a continuing and growing challenge as the system expands, and especially as new business and operational models – such as unmanned aerial systems – are introduced. Enabling aircraft (with pilots aboard or not) to fly optimized trajectories through high density airspace with real-time, systemwide safety assurance are among the most critical operational improvements that must be achieved.

In looking at global growth, we see the following:

These numbers would be very frightening without the aviation industry deciding to be pro-active relative to the sheer numbers of passenger miles anticipated over the next two decades.  That’s where NASA comes in.

NEW AVIATION HORIZONS:

In FY 2017, NASA plans to begin a major ten-year research effort to accelerate aviation energy efficiency, transform propulsion systems, and enable major improvements in air traffic mobility. The centerpiece of NASA’s ten-year acceleration for advanced technologies testing is called New Aviation Horizons, or NAH. It is an ambitious plan to build a series of five mostly large-scale experimental aircraft – X-planes – that will flight test new technologies, systems and novel aircraft and engine configurations. X-planes are a key piece of the “three-legged stool” that characterizes aviation research.

  • One leg represents computational capabilities – the high-speed super computers that can model the physics of air flowing over an object – be it a wing, a rudder or a full airplane.
  • A second leg represents experimental methods. This is where scientists put what is most often a scale model of an object or part of an object – be it a wing, a rudder or an airplane – in a wind tunnel to take measurements of air flowing over the object. These measurements help improve the computer model, and the computer model helps inform improvements to the airplane design, which can then be tested again in the wind tunnel.
  • The third leg of the stool is to actually fly the design. Whether it’s flying an X-plane or a full-scale prototype of a new aircraft, the data recorded in actual flight can be used to validate and improve the computational and experimental methods used to develop the design in the first place. This third leg makes it possible to lower the risk enough to completely trust what the numbers are saying.

With NAH, NASA will:

  • Demonstrate revolutionary advancements in aircraft and engine configurations that break the mold of traditional tube and wing designs.
  • Support accelerated delivery to the U.S. aviation community of advanced verified design and analysis tools that support new flight-validated concepts, systems and technologies.
  • Provide to appropriate organizations and agencies research results that inform their work to update domestic and international aviation standards and regulations.
  • Enable U.S. industry to put into service flight-proven transformative technology that will solve tomorrow’s global aviation challenges.
  • Inspire a new generation of aeronautical innovators and equip them to engineer future aviation systems. Of the five X-planes, NASA has determined that three subsonic aircraft will be enough to span the range of possible configurations necessary to demonstrate in flight the major enabling fuel, emissions and noise reducing technologies.

The graphic below indicates possible designs for aircraft of the future.  All of these craft are now on the drawing board with computational prototyping underway.

INDUSTRY:

U.S. industry plays an integral role in the NAH initiative, leading the design, development and building of all X-planes under contract to NASA. Industry will be a research partner in the ground test and analysis, as well as the flight tests of the X-planes. Industry also partners in the advancement of the physics-based design and analysis capabilities. Through the lead and partnering roles, U.S. industry will be fully capable of confidently taking the next steps in commercializing the transformational configurations and technologies. The Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company has already been awarded a preliminary design contract for the Quiet Supersonic Technology demonstrator. As indicated in a white paper published by the Aerospace Industries Association and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, “The U.S. government must support robust, long-term Federal civil aeronautics research and technology initiatives funded at a level that will ensure U.S. leadership in aeronautics. Congress should support NASA’s ten-year Strategic Implementation Plan at least at the levels recommended in the fiscal year 2017 NASA Budget request to sustain a strong economy, maintain a skilled workforce, support national security, and drive a world-class educational system.”

UNIVERSITIES:

NASA has already launched the University Leadership Initiative, which provides U.S.-based universities the opportunity to take full independent leadership in defining and solving key technical challenges aligned with the NASA Aeronautics strategy. Solicitations and proposals are managed through the NASA Research Announcement process; the first round of awards will be made in Fall 2016. These awards could lead to new experiments that would fly onboard one or more X-planes. In addition, NASA is formulating new mechanisms for direct university and student participation in the X-plane design, development and flight test process. The objective is to ensure U.S. universities remain the leading global institutions for aviation research and education, and to ensure the next generation workforce has the vision and skills needed to lead aviation system transformation.

POSSIBLE CONFIGURATIONS:

As mentioned above, NASA, industry and universities have already begun looking at possible configurations.  The most promising on-going programs are given below.

As you can see, the designs are absolutely striking and “doable” relative to existing technology.  The key goals are to:

  • Produce environmentally sound or “GREEN” designs lessening air pollution.
  • Create better fuel usage and conservation.
  • Extend flight range
  • Structure designs so minimal airport alternations will be necessary
  • Improve passenger experience

Tall orders but keep in mind NASA got us to the moon and back.  Why do we feel they will not be able to meet the goals indicated?  As always, I welcome your comments.

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If you work or have worked in manufacturing you know robotic systems have definitely had a distinct impact on assembly, inventory acquisition from storage areas and finished-part warehousing.   There is considerable concern that the “rise of the machines” will eventually replace individuals performing a verity of tasks.  I personally do not feel this will be the case although there is no doubt robotic systems have found their way onto the manufacturing floor.

From the “Executive Summary World Robotics 2016 Industrial Robots”, we see the following:

2015:  By far the highest volume ever recorded in 2015, robot sales increased by 15% to 253,748 units, again by far the highest level ever recorded for one year. The main driver of the growth in 2015 was the general industry with an increase of 33% compared to 2014, in particular the electronics industry (+41%), metal industry (+39%), the chemical, plastics and rubber industry (+16%). The robot sales in the automotive industry only moderately increased in 2015 after a five-year period of continued considerable increase. China has significantly expanded its leading position as the biggest market with a share of 27% of the total supply in 2015.

In looking at the chart below, we can see the sales picture with perspective and show how system sales have increased from 2003.

It is very important to note that seventy-five percent (75%) of global robot sales comes from five (5) countries.

There were five major markets representing seventy-five percent (75%) of the total sales volume in 2015:  China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States, and Germany.

As you can see from the bar chart above, sales volume increased from seventy percent (70%) in 2014. Since 2013 China is the biggest robot market in the world with a continued dynamic growth. With sales of about 68,600 industrial robots in 2015 – an increase of twenty percent (20%) compared to 2014 – China alone surpassed Europe’s total sales volume (50,100 units). Chinese robot suppliers installed about 20,400 units according to the information from the China Robot Industry Alliance (CRIA). Their sales volume was about twenty-nine percent (29%) higher than in 2014. Foreign robot suppliers increased their sales by seventeen percent (17%) to 48,100 units (including robots produced by international robot suppliers in China). The market share of Chinese robot suppliers grew from twenty-five percent (25%) in 2013 to twenty-nine percent (29%) in 2015. Between 2010 and 2015, total supply of industrial robots increased by about thirty-six percent (36%) per year on average.

About 38,300 units were sold to the Republic of Korea, fifty-five percent (55%) more than in 2014. The increase is partly due to a number of companies which started to report their data only in 2015. The actual growth rate in 2015 is estimated at about thirty percent (30%) to thirty-five percent (35%.)

In 2015, robot sales in Japan increased by twenty percent (20%) to about 35,000 units reaching the highest level since 2007 (36,100 units). Robot sales in Japan followed a decreasing trend between 2005 (reaching the peak at 44,000 units) and 2009 (when sales dropped to only 12,767 units). Between 2010 and 2015, robot sales increased by ten percent (10%) on average per year (CAGR).

Increase in robot installations in the United States continued in 2015, by five percent (5%) to the peak of 27,504 units. Driver of this continued growth since 2010 was the ongoing trend to automate production in order to strengthen American industries on the global market and to keep manufacturing at home, and in some cases, to bring back manufacturing that had previously been sent overseas.

Germany is the fifth largest robot market in the world. In 2015, the number of robots sold increased slightly to a new record high at 20,105 units compared to 2014 (20,051 units). In spite of the high robot density of 301 units per 10,000 employees, annual sales are still very high in Germany. Between 2010 and 2015, annual sales of industrial robots increased by an average of seven percent (7%) in Germany (CAGR).

From the graphic below, you can see which industries employ robotic systems the most.

Growth rates will not lessen with projections through 2019 being as follows:

A fascinating development involves the assistance of human endeavor by robotic systems.  This fairly new technology is called collaborative robots of COBOTS.  Let’s get a definition.

COBOTS:

A cobot or “collaborative robot” is a robot designed to assist human beings as a guide or assistor in a specific task. A regular robot is designed to be programmed to work more or less autonomously. In one approach to cobot design, the cobot allows a human to perform certain operations successfully if they fit within the scope of the task and to steer the human on a correct path when the human begins to stray from or exceed the scope of the task.

“The term ‘collaborative’ is used to distinguish robots that collaborate with humans from robots that work behind fences without any direct interaction with humans.  “In contrast, articulated, cartesian, delta and SCARA robots distinguish different robot kinematics.

Traditional industrial robots excel at applications that require extremely high speeds, heavy payloads and extreme precision.  They are reliable and very useful for many types of high volume, low mix applications.  But they pose several inherent challenges for higher mix environments, particularly in smaller companies.  First and foremost, they are very expensive, particularly when considering programming and integration costs.  They require specialized engineers working over several weeks or even months to program and integrate them to do a single task.  And they don’t multi-task easily between jobs since that setup effort is so substantial.  Plus, they can’t be readily integrated into a production line with people because they are too dangerous to operate in close proximity to humans.

For small manufacturers with limited budgets, space and staff, a collaborative robot such as Baxter (shown below) is an ideal fit because it overcomes many of these challenges.  It’s extremely intuitive, integrates seamlessly with other automation technologies, is very flexible and is quite affordable with a base price of only $25,000.  As a result, Baxter is well suited for many applications, such as those requiring manual labor and a high degree of flexibility, that are currently unmet by traditional technologies.

Baxter is one example of collaborative robotics and some say is by far the safest, easiest, most flexible and least costly robot of its kind today.  It features a sophisticated multi-tier safety design that includes a smooth, polymer exterior with fewer pinch points; back-drivable joints that can be rotated by hand; and series elastic actuators which help it to minimize the likelihood of injury during inadvertent contact.

It’s also incredibly simple to use.  Line workers and other non-engineers can quickly learn to train the robot themselves, by hand.  With Baxter, the robot itself is the interface, with no teaching pendant or external control system required.  And with its ease of use and diverse skill set, Baxter is extremely flexible, capable of being utilized across multiple lines and tasks in a fraction of the time and cost it would take to re-program other robots.  Plus, Baxter is made in the U.S.A., which is a particularly appealing aspect for many of our customers looking to re-shore their own production operations.

The digital picture above shows a lady work alongside a collaborative robotic system, both performing a specific task. The lady feels right at home with her mechanical friend only because usage demands a great element of safety.

Certifiable safety is the most important precondition for a collaborative robot system to be applied to an industrial setting.  Available solutions that fulfill the requirements imposed by safety standardization often show limited performance or productivity gains, as most of today’s implemented scenarios are often limited to very static processes. This means a strict stop and go of the robot process, when the human enters or leaves the work space.

Collaborative systems are still a work in progress but the technology has greatly expanded the use and this is primarily due to satisfying safety requirements.  Upcoming years will only produce greater acceptance and do not be surprised if you see robots and humans working side by side on every manufacturing floor over the next decade.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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