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Future Aircraft Design

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Boeing hybrid electric concept
Boeing hybrid electric concept

For the past 50 years, most of our experience with aircraft has involved traveling between large airports with hundreds of fellow passengers. Recent technological revolutions, however, will make future aircraft more important to our lives in many ways

From silent, efficient global transportation to personal or on-demand flight that frees us from roads, to autonomous air vehicles for delivery of information and goods, the future of flight will look considerably different than it does today. Our aircraft design research focuses on these enabling technologies and their application to future flight concepts.

Designing aircraft to reduce environmental impact

Although the efficiency of commercial jets has improved dramatically since their introduction, the effect of airplanes on the global and local environments is significant. Community noise and emissions, along with effects on global climate from high-altitude operations, can be reduced through operational changes, airframe design objectives that explicitly account for environmental impact, and new technologies such as electric propulsion or alternative fuels.

New technologies for autonomous flight vehicles

The ubiquity of sensors, embedded computation and active control systems has changed how systems — from cameras to home appliances and automobiles — operate. Aircraft have used onboard sensing and feedback control to improve safety, reliability and piloted handling qualities for many years. However, the increasingly affordable array of sensors, actuators and computing devices are leading to air vehicles with autonomous operation.

When onboard pilots are not required, the diversity of practical vehicle configurations grows. Today, drones help in the study of coral reefs, high-altitude long-endurance observation and communications, and aerial photography. Future applications may include delivering packages in urban regions, medicines in remote areas, or even people, as driverless cars help pave the way for new forms of air transport.

These new concepts cannot be designed based on decades of experience and statistical information on similar vehicles. New design tools and approaches are needed to create autonomous flight systems with low noise, high efficiency and safe operations.

Computation-based design

Aircraft are complex systems that require subtle interactions between many components. Analysis of flight vehicles requires a multidisciplinary approach to modeling their aerodynamics, structures, dynamics, sensing and control systems, and propulsion systems. Methodologies to simulate these aspects of aircraft have increased in fidelity and complexity, enabled by dramatic improvements in computational capabilities.

Future aircraft design will rely heavily on these simulations, extending their use in large-scale optimization and uncertainty quantification. A variety of computational tools is needed for conceptual design to shape optimization. These tools range from reduced-order computational models for the development of design space exploration strategies and rapid design optimization to high-fidelity computational models for trouble-shooting and performance assessment.

Research in aircraft design and supporting computational technologies is performed in our department in many research laboratories, including the:

Our research in this area is characterized by strong connections with government organizations (NASA, FAA, DOD, DOE) and successful affiliations with industry (traditional aerospace companies as well as Google, Facebook and aerospace startups). It benefits from our local environment at Stanford and our global network of collaborators. Many of the design, modeling and computational methodologies we are developing for future aircraft are equally applicable to wind energy systems, underwater vehicles and, of course, space exploration.