A truck with an airplane wing attached to it barrels down a dusty road at 73 miles per hour. The contraption is even stranger up close, because the wing has 18 electric motors powered by lithium iron phosphate batteries built into its carbon composite body. The experimental wing-truck is called HEIST, short for Hybrid Electric Integrated Systems Testbed. Engineers at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California use it to research electric propulsion systems. The electric wing could one day be used to make an aircraft that is quieter, more efficient, and better for the environment than today’s planes.
NASA will use the experimental wing to replace a traditional wing in a piloted Tecnam P2006T aircraft. The project team expects to fly the new aircraft, called Sceptor, in two years. In the meantime, the researchers are busy testing and improving the design with a flight simulator and the HEIST testbed. By attaching the wing to a speeding truck, they can test it in a real-world wind tunnel, where they measure lift, drag, pitching moment and rolling moment to confirm that their simulations are accurate. Sean Clarke, co-principal investigator for the project, said:
By evaluating what we measured, versus what the computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, predicted, we will know if the predictions make sense. Since Sceptor is a new design, we need to validate we have good answers for the Sceptor experimental wing.
So far, the tests demonstrate that the electric propulsion-powered wing creates twice the lift at lower speeds than traditional systems. Clarke’s team is also considering a hybrid design, where the 18 motors would be powered by batteries at first, and then gas-powered turbines would take over to extend the aircraft’s range. Sceptor is part of NASA’s overall vision of developing low-carbon propulsion technology for aircraft that is quieter, more environmenally-friendly, and less expensive to operate.