Small Steps, Giant Leaps

From a project’s smallest steps to humanity’s greatest leaps, NASA’s technical workforce embodies the spirit of Neil Armstrong’s immortal words from the surface of the Moon, boldly pushing the envelope of human achievement and scientific understanding. In our podcast, Small Steps, Giant Leaps, APPEL Knowledge Services talks with systems engineers, scientists, project managers and thought leaders about challenges, opportunities, and successes.

Brent Cobleigh, NASA Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities Project Manager, discusses new technologies that could transform air travel.

Cobleigh outlines research and technology development efforts — including the X-57 and X-59 aircraft — to mature and transition aeronautic technologies into future air vehicles and operational systems.

In this episode of Small Steps, Giant Leaps, you’ll learn about:

  • Electric propulsion technologies that could lead to an Uber-like ridesharing platform for small airplanes
  • Technology development for supersonic airplanes
  • Overcoming technical and project management challenges on flight research projects

 

Related Resources

Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities Project

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

X-57

X-59 QueSST

 

Brent Cobleigh Credit: NASA

Brent Cobleigh
Credit: NASA

Brent Cobleigh is manager of the Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities Project, which is part of the NASA Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program. In this role, Cobleigh develops and manages subprojects that transition aeronautics technology development efforts from ground test to the flight environment. He also manages a fund that helps maintain NASA’s core flight research capabilities, including a chase aircraft fleet, control rooms, radar and communications systems, simulation facilities and a thermal loads lab. He previously was assigned to management roles on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy and was responsible for the development and operation of the world’s largest flying astronomical observatory. Cobleigh, who has 29 years’ experience working for NASA on projects covering a wide variety of flight research, served as Director of the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. He has published 22 technical papers and earned a bachelor’s from California State Polytechnic University and a master’s from George Washington University, both in aeronautical engineering.


Transcript

Brent Cobleigh: Once that happens, now you have the genesis for a new market, and aircraft companies will start building supersonic airplanes. And then people can start enjoying the benefits of getting to places faster.

We like to say that when you’re flying, you’re flying with NASA Aeronautics, because the technologies that NASA has developed are on every part of every airplane that exists right now.

This is our first attempt to completely replace the entire propulsion system on the airplane with all electric systems.

Deana Nunley (Host): You’re listening to Small Steps, Giant Leaps – a NASA APPEL Knowledge Services podcast featuring interviews and stories, tapping into project experiences in order to unravel lessons learned, identify best practices and discover novel ideas. I’m Deana Nunley.

NASA-developed technology directly benefits the air transportation system, the aviation industry, and the passengers and businesses who rely on aviation every day.

The Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities Project – FDC for short – is part of the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate’s Integrated Aviation Systems Program, which matures and transitions advanced technologies into future air vehicles and operational systems.

FDC Project Manager Brent Cobleigh is our guest today.

Brent, thanks for joining us. Could you give us a quick overview of the Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities Project?

Cobleigh: Sure. FDC has really two big, distinct elements that are really a lot different from one another that are stuck together, and it’s right in the name. We have flight demonstrations and we have capabilities. So, one part, we call it the flight research capabilities, or capabilities for short. It’s really just the caretaking and feeding of the agency’s key flight test facilities and support facilities and capabilities. So, this is both hardware capabilities and people. It’s the expertise of how to run these facilities.

We consider the capabilities a national asset. So, Aeronautics funds them and keeps them going, but money does come in from other areas, when we partner with other major directorates within NASA like the space side or the science side. Sometimes they do atmospheric research in flight, and we support them through the capabilities as well.

Then the other big part of that is the flight demonstration side. These are mostly moderate to complex flight research projects that have a focus goal to advance a particular technology related to the aviation system in some way. So, FDC’s flight demonstrations part of the project is really focused on helping bring things to flight. Not everything needs to go to flight to really prove its technology, but the things that do, FDC is there to help. A lot of other projects within Aeronautics take their technologies that they’ve been working on in a lab, doing simulations and advanced analysis work on and have done a lot of lab testing, some of these technologies need to go to flight to prove that they’re really ready to go into a real product.

So, we take those technologies and help these other projects integrate them onto an airplane of some type. Sometimes we have to build an airplane from scratch or a small test model or something like that. We just figure out ways to efficiently do that and we partner with them, or sometimes multiple projects, to achieve their goals. So, that’s the key part of demonstrations. It’s helping other aeronautics projects achieve their goals.

Host: Let’s talk first about the capabilities side. What are some of the activities on the capabilities side of the project?

Cobleigh: Capabilities has four key elements that we have to pursue. The first one is our simulation lab. So, out at Armstrong, we have a very capable simulation infrastructure that we use to support projects. These simulations can range from very small, just all software simulations that an engineer can use at their desk to just do different types of analyses, up to a bigger simulation, where a pilot would be sitting in a cockpit and flying things.

Then it gets even more complex than that. We have simulations that have not only a cockpit in simulation, but they have all the flight hardware there. The actual mission control computer that’s in the airplane is there, and maybe even the simulation is moving things on the actual airplane, running the hydraulics, moving the control surfaces or something like that. So, the simulation capability is really critical for flight test, to test software development, to test maneuvers we’re going to fly, to make sure certain things are safe. There’s just all kinds of use for the simulation.

So, our capabilities does investments to help them really develop new infrastructure and develop new simulation capabilities. Then the projects put their money into the sim lab to fund their individual sims. So, the simulation lab is a little bit of a smaller investment for my project.

The second asset in capabilities is what we call the Flight Loads Lab. That’s where we do structural testing on flight experiments or airplanes. So, we take airplanes or experiments in there and we test them under loads, the type of load you’ll see during – you know, the aerodynamic loads and the maneuver loads that you’ll see during a flight activity.

So, we put static loads on those, where you’re just sort of putting weight or pulling on something to simulate the load you’d see in flight. Then we can also do dynamic testing, where if you have a wing in flight, you have vibrations that are induced by the aerodynamics and other things or just the structure vibrating. So, we can simulate that on the ground through what we call ground vibration testing. So, that’s also done in the Loads Lab. It’s very critical for new flight experiments.

Then the Loads Lab can actually do really high temperature testing as well. We can put an aircraft structure under a load while it’s being heated. This is really useful for really high-speed flight experiments, like hypersonic experiments, where you’re flying five or ten times the speed of sound. The aerodynamics air molecules around the vehicle are heated up. So, we can simulate that on the ground and add the loads as well. So, we can add high temperature and add structural loads at the same time. That’s a really unique capability that NASA has.

The third capability we call our Support Aircraft and Maintenance Operations. So, we maintain a small fleet of aircraft that support our flight experiments in a lot of ways. Most of our research experiments, we use chase aircraft. The research aircraft will fly, but if they have any problems in flight, we want an extra set of eyes there looking at it and helping the pilot bring the airplane back safe if there’s some kind of emergency.

So, we use the support fleet for chasing experiments. We also use it to keep our pilots proficient. We have really advanced test pilots, really highly capable, and we have to keep their skills up. So, they are able to take these airplanes out and go do practice missions and keep their skills really honed.

But we also use this support fleet to carry experiments. We modify the airplanes. We put experiments on them. We carry things under them that are different types of advanced research. So, we don’t always modify complete aircraft or build an aircraft from scratch. Sometimes we can just take, “Oh, we’re testing some new material and we want to see how it gets impacted by, let’s say, atmospheric conditions like rain.”

So, we can put this material on a little structure under one of the airplanes. We can carry it with our support airplane. It might be an F-15, for example. We can fly it at high speed, low speed, high altitude, low altitude; fly it through rain and all these different conditions to test whether the material can really withstand that. So, that’s a key capability. So, that’s our support aircraft.

Then the last one is what people might think of when they think of a flight test. We have a set of control rooms. So, we have the engineers on the ground that are monitoring the test airplane, looking at all the different parameters, the different instrumentation that’s being telemetered down to the control room on these displays.

You’ll have people at a structure station, an aerodynamic station, operations, all these different stations that are monitoring different things about the test airplane, and making sure that things are being done safe, first of all, then secondly, making sure that we’re collecting the right data. We’re doing research here, so we have to collect the right data, make sure we’re collecting it in the right way. And that team can tell, through the communication system to the pilot, “Hey, we’d like to repeat that maneuver,” or, “We’d like you to do it a few more Gs, a higher level,” or something like that. We use that to monitor.

We call it the Dryden Aeronautical Test Range that manages the control rooms, the radars we use to track the airplane. We have video trackers and we have, of course, communication systems to be able to talk to the pilot, receive the telemetry. So, that system of things, the Dryden Aeronautical Test Range, is a real key capability for national flight tests.

Host: And then what’s happening on the flight demonstrations side of the project?

Cobleigh: Right now, we have a number of – we call them subprojects, but they’re all really projects on their own. A couple of the ones I have right now are pretty major activities. The one that people may have heard about is called X-57. X-57, anytime you hear X in an airplane designation, it means it’s an experimental aircraft and it receives this designation from the Air Force.

Each X plane has a purpose. So, X-57, we call it Maxwell. That’s its nickname, named after the famous scientist that did a lot of work in magnetism and electricity. It got the name Maxwell because it’s an electric airplane demonstrator. So, this is our first attempt to completely replace the entire propulsion system on the airplane with all electric systems.

The way we did that, of course we don’t want to try to go build a giant airplane and do that for the first time. So, we’re starting relatively small. We have a twin-engine general aviation airplane. The goal of the project is really let’s take the piston engines out of the airplane, the traditional type propulsion system, then replace that with all electric motors and controllers, and also replace the power system for that with a battery, a very complex battery system.

So, our goal is to go out and show that that’s much more efficient than a traditional piston-powered or traditionally fueled airplane, and our goal is to show that it’s five times more efficient. So, essentially, to be on the same flight condition, you’re using basically 20 percent of the energy that you would use if you were in a fueled airplane.

The reason for that is because electric motors and power systems are just much, much more efficient than a traditional piston reciprocating engine or even a turbine engine. So, the goal is that we can really reduce energy usage, which of course improves the environment as well along the way, and it also opens up a new market. You can make airplanes less expensive if you’re using a lot less fuel. It potentially could open some new markets where there isn’t a market today. So, that’s our goal.

In the process of executing X-57, we’re sort of seeding a brand new industry. There’s a lot of big players people have heard about in the commercial airline business — Boeing, Lockheed and all of these companies, Airbus. But within the electric world, you’re seeing new startups, dozens and dozens of them, and really, hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment are coming in. So, you’re seeing the companies that might be the next Tesla that are sort of spawning the industry.

So, industry is now starting to look at electric for both small airplanes and large airplanes. The large airplanes, of course, are a much longer distance in the future, but the small airplane activity has a couple of key areas that we think are ripe for more near-term, say in the next decade or two.

One of those areas we call Urban Air Mobility. This is a concept, if you can think of a ridesharing platform like Uber or Lyft, imagine that those capabilities, you could – it’s a vertical dimension as well. In addition to the streets and highways those vehicles travel around, imagine if you had a vehicle that could fly above the city and go in every direction.

So, this Urban Air Mobility market, which is starting to spawn, will be able to carry a handful of passengers from point to point, just like an Uber type ride, and be able to do that efficiently and at a cost that’s reasonable. But the key to making that possible is that these vehicles need to go to electric. That’s how you get the efficiency. It also – having electric — gives you a lot of design flexibility as well, to design the airplanes in different ways.

You’ve seen vehicles that can carry four passengers across a city like a helicopter, right. Helicopters are extremely noisy and use a ton of fuel and are very expensive. These Urban Air Mobility vehicles will have many rotors, which will help reduce the noise, but also improve safety, and they can all be driven with electricity, which gives you a lot of flexibility, like I said, in the design. So, that is a market that is upcoming, that we’re contributing to with the seedling activity like X-57.

The goal, hopefully, is to then get larger and larger airplanes. As the technology matures, you should be able to see short-hop airplanes that are flying between small cities, for example. Most airline flights fly 500 miles or more, but there’s a lot of cities in the country that aren’t really served by airlines, but they have populations of a few hundred thousand people. So, these small airplanes that could transport, say, 20 people between cities or bring people from a small city over to a hub city, like Los Angeles, so that they could catch an international flight would be really valuable to people.

So, we see that as a totally new market opening up, which both helps people, helps mobility, helps with economic competitiveness, creates really good jobs. It just has a lot of benefits for the United States. So, X-57 is sort of a first step in that. So, that’s one of our big projects within flight demonstrations.

Another thing that I see that people find very interesting is this project we call SCHAMROQ. If people have been around NASA, you know that NASA has lots of acronyms. So, SCHAMROQ

was a way of describing this really complicated project we have. It stands for Schlieren, Airborne Measurements, and Range Operations for QueSST – Quest with a Q.

So, this project really is developing capabilities for our Low-Boom Flight Demonstrator. So, NASA right now has made a major investment to develop the technologies and prove them for how do we get the sonic boom of supersonic airplanes quieter, so that we can have a viable commercial market for supersonic airplanes.

Right now, it’s illegal for an airline to operate a supersonic airplane over the United States. That’s why there is no supersonic flight. First-generation airplanes, like the Concorde, were just too loud and noisy and bothered people on the ground. So, we’ve been working for many decades on improving the technology and the prediction tools, to be able to design an airplane that’s quieter. We’ve done a lot of flight tests and design work over the last, like I said, couple decades. We’ve gotten to the point where we think we can build an airplane now that’s quiet enough that it won’t bother people.

So, we’ve embarked on that journey and there is a project called Low-Boom Flight Demonstration. We’ve awarded a contract to Lockheed. Lockheed is our partner, and they are right now building that research airplane. It’ll be another X airplane called X-59.

So, once we start flying that airplane, the question is going to be: does it really meet the design objective? Is it as quiet as we think? Does it bother people or does it not bother people?

So, we are going to do that in a number of ways. There is a project that will be measuring the noise on the ground and also surveying people that we’re flying over to find out how it bothered them or whether they even noticed it going about their normal daily business.

But then there’s another capability that we need. We need to measure things in flight. So, that’s where SCHAMROQ comes in. So, my project is developing really two key capabilities. One is what we call a shock-sensing probe. So, this probe is actually going to measure the shockwave’s strength as the low-boom airplane is flying at 55,000 feet and 925 miles an hour.

We’ll be flying around that vehicle, within 100 feet or less – or up to a further distance as well, but we’ll be using the probe on our airplane, which will be an F-15, to actually penetrate the shockwave. So, we’ll be flying under it, flying up through the shockwave structure of low-boom, and measure the shock strength at every point along that path. And we’ll use that data to compare to our ground predications that we call computational fluid dynamics, where we predict what the shock strength is going to be, and we’ll use that to compare, to make sure that we’re actually predicting it well.

If on the ground we measure the shockwave strength as higher than we predicted, the shocks-sensing probe data will help us try to understand why it was off. The whole goal of this is to not only prove that a certain noise level is acceptable to the public, but to make sure our design tools work well, so that the industry can design the next generation of supersonic airplanes. This X plane we’re building is not a commercial airliner, but they’ll need the tools to develop those airplanes. So, the shock-sensing probe is a key part of that.

The other key part to try to understand the low-boom shock structure is what we call Schlieren. Schlieren is named after a German scientist who developed this capability in a wind tunnel, to be able to visualize a shockwave. Shockwaves, you can’t see with your eyes.

So, we’ve developed a capability in flight now to be able to use a camera to look at shockwave structure, look at an airplane flying by. The shockwaves create little density waves, and if you fly that airplane in such a way that you have a background that has a speckled background, you could say, and in the past we’ve used the desert floor with all the shrubberies on the desert, but the new technique we’re going to use is going to use the sun with a special filter, and just the sunspots are going to be used as a speckled background.

As the shockwaves travel through that, our camera will be looking at it, and we’ll see the background spots. The airplane will fly through the path of the sun. We have these software tools that can reconstruct the bending of the sunspots as it goes through the shockwave and, using some advanced software techniques, we can reconstruct what the shockwaves look like.

If you’ve ever seen a shockwave structure in one of these Schlieren pictures, what you see is not just a big, strong shock on the front of the airplane. Every little protuberance on the airplane, like the canopy, the inlet to the engines, the tails, they all create their own shocks. So, the low-boom airplane is going to have dozens of shocks coming off of it. By the time that reaches the ground, those shocks join together and create these really strong shocks. The design for the LBFD airplane, the low-boom airplane, is to try to keep those shocks – both weaken the shocks and to keep them separated, so you don’t get this sharp bang sound on the ground. You get sort of a rumble sound or people will say, hopefully, it will sound more like a car door closing outside. So, in the normal course of your daily business, you hopefully won’t notice the sound going by. It’ll sound like every other noise that people hear in their daily life, like traffic and cars driving by and people talking in the background.

So, SCHAMROQ, our project, is developing those capabilities to really prove that we understand how to design supersonic airplanes in a way that we can keep them quiet. So, once we have that, we’re going to take this information to the international board that manages the rules for air traffic worldwide. We’re going to change the rule and say, “This is the noise level that aircraft companies need to build airplanes to, that the world will allow to fly supersonically over land.”

Once that happens, now you have the genesis for a new market, and aircraft companies will start building supersonic airplanes. And then people can start enjoying the benefits of getting to places faster. So, again, NASA has a role in trying to create a new market where one doesn’t exist right now and SCHAMROQ plays a role in that.

So, those are two of the big flight demonstration projects that we’re working on right now.

Host: Brent, these technologies and capabilities that you’re talking about, so many of them have really been what we have long considered futuristic technologies, things we’ve seen in sci-fi and cartoons, and now you’re actually working the technologies and trying to bring these to market. What are some of the challenges of managing the projects and the capabilities, the demonstrations, all of this together? What are some of the challenges that you face?

Cobleigh: Every project has a whole host of challenges. So, myself as the Flight Demonstrations and Capabilities Project Manager, I’m managing a portfolio of projects. I’m watching over the project managers that manage each of these activities, so I’ve kind of got the big picture look across things.

So, I have to worry about things like cost and schedule. Those are always critical to any project. But the real challenges comes into, yeah, you want to be really a taskmaster, “We’ve got to get this done. We’ve got to keep it on cost.” But in reality, we’re doing research and in research you can’t always predict the path. You can’t predict all the things that are going to happen. That’s why we’re doing it.

So, it’s a constant challenge to balance cost and schedule against getting the things done and getting them done in the right way. You want to collect the right data. You need to push the technology along and not short circuit anything along the path, and you need to do things safely. So, it’s really critical that we balance those things, and it’s always a challenge to figure out what that right balance is.

The other part of that is really the technology itself. This is the other big challenge we always hit, these roadblocks, things that happen along the path that you have to recover from. Again, we’re doing research and we don’t exactly know the outcome in a lot of cases. Doing things smart, failing in a smart way is acceptable in a lot of the things we do.

The head of NASA Aeronautics, Jaiwon Shin, has actually created an award for what he calls The Smartest Failure Award. So, that’s an award for people that are trying to do something very difficult and trying to push the boundaries of technology, and maybe they don’t quite achieve it, but they do it in such a way that you learn a lot in the process and that helps the next step, the next try at that technology area.

So, I’ll just tell you about one challenge that we had on X-57 that really was very concerning and we were concerned the project might get cancelled along the way. As I mentioned, X-57 is an electric airplane, so we had to develop a really advanced battery system.

The auto industry has been pushing battery technology along and doing a very good job of it, but they’ve reached the point where batteries are light enough for them, cars that have 300-plus miles of range, and that’s pretty acceptable for the market.

But for aviation, that’s not going to work. We need to go much lighter and we need to have a lot more energy. So, they’ve helped us, but we need to push it to the next step. So, we’re doing that with the X-57 battery. It’s right now an 800-pound battery. It’s pretty heavy, but it can power roughly 100 U.S. homes simultaneously. So, it has a lot of capability, like a quarter megawatt of capability.

In the development of that, one of the challenges is you’re flying it in an airplane that’s piloted. So, we’re always, of course, worried about the safety of the pilot. We don’t want to see the airplane fail. We don’t want to see it catch on fire. These batteries have a lot of energy, and once you let that energy loose in an uncontrolled way, you’re going to have really dire consequences very quickly.

So, we’ve put this battery design through all kinds of ground testing. We tested it at high altitudes, using an altitude chamber to lower the pressure. We tested under hot and cold conditions. We tested under vibration. Then we tested under different failure modes. So, it was during one of these failure mode tests that we had the issue.

So, just like current advanced car batteries, our battery is made up of many small cells, thousands and thousands of these small cells that look a lot like a AA battery, all connected together. Occasionally, one of these cells can fail for some reason. They get overheated. They have other chemical problems or short circuit.

So, our test was to look at sort of in the worst-case location, if we have what we call a thermal runaway. So, the chemistry in that cell failed together and created a runaway that creates a lot of heat. The design we came up with, does it contain that failure? In other words, does that battery cell fail? It heats up, but then nothing else happens and everything is fine, and we can continue the mission, fly and safely land the airplane.

During that test, we intentionally created a failure case where this one cell failed. Unfortunately, it heated up so much that it failed the next cell, which then failed the next cell, and we had basically what we call a runaway thermal event that very quickly caught fire in the lab. That’s why we do this testing. We did it on the ground, so it didn’t hurt anybody, but it was a major failure in our case. So, we had a battery design that we could not qualify for flight.

So, it was sort of back to the drawing board. How can we redesign this to try to contain this failure case? So, the team had to look at all kinds of different materials and different ways to package it. And how do you contain a failure once it happens?

Another thing we did is we reached out to our brethren on the space side of NASA. There were people in the Orion spacecraft development team that were developing similar batteries for future Orion applications, and they had a packaging idea that looked promising and they suggested it to us. So, we saw the value in that and we went through a redesign process, and got the battery weight down to very close to what we had originally had. We only gained a few pounds, a handful of pounds.

It took about a year to go through this whole process of redesigning and understanding the problem, and coming up with this redesign and finally building it, and putting it through the same test that we failed on the first time. With everybody’s fingers crossed, we went through the test and the battery passed with flying colors.

The contractor that we worked with on that has now already commercialized that battery. So, there are other companies already buying this battery system for their electric airplane designs, and we’re getting ready to fly it on X-57 as well. So, that was one of those cases where it was sort of a smartest failure case, where the team did a really good job understanding the problem, stay focused, don’t worry about the impact, but press forward and be successful, and they did that. So, it was a big challenge, but it was something that the team was proud of that they pushed through that.

Host: Are there any other lessons learned that you could share with other project managers from maybe some other challenges that you faced?

Cobleigh: Of course, we could talk all day just on technical challenges. But from a management perspective, I think some of the lessons I’ve learned as being a project manager now, since 2003, is that optimism is such a key role in being a project manager, because you’re overseeing the whole technical team and all the other support teams, the resource people, the people helping you with contracts, and the technicians and mechanics and pilots.

So, you’re the person that has to keep the team focused and pressing forward, and you can only do that with an optimistic attitude. We had this failure with the X-57 battery, but it was key just to let the team know, “We’re going to give you the space to solve this problem and you’re going to solve it. We’re going to keep the project funded. We’re going to keep it going. We’re going to give you another shot at this.” That optimism I find just sort of permeates the project.

In fact, when I think of optimism, I like listening to people’s quotes, famous quotes on different things, but I never remember them. But one has stuck with me and it’s, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” That was by former General Colin Powell. What he meant by that is optimism just energizes a team, and they do more and they can press forward with a lot more energy. So, I’ve seen optimistic teams perform much better and get through issues faster.

I was a chief engineer on a project once. A center director told me that when the team walked in a room to give a presentation one time, that he could feel the energy in the room, and that was really the optimism of this team. They knew that their goal was important and exciting, and that they were going to succeed at it. And it really was. It was really one of the most fun projects I ever worked on, and it was due to that optimism. So, a project manager and other project leaders need to recognize, be real, you know, “We’ve got problems. We have to solve these,” but do it with an optimistic attitude.

Then the other lesson I just wrote about recently is you’ve got to be vigilant as a project manager. I use the phrase, “You have to turn over some rocks and see what’s under them.” What I mean by that is, like I said, a project has many different aspects to it, and as a project manager you can’t be deeply involved in every aspect of it. People have to do their jobs. You’re never going to be as smart as your structures engineer on structures, but you have to know a little bit about it. You have to know enough to ask the right question.

So, you want to be engaged with your project, and when you hear things that aren’t quite right, you start asking questions. You turn over some rocks. You ask some questions about is this the right way to do it? Is there another way we could do this? Is this really necessary? What requirement are we trying to achieve with this goal? Do we need to bring in extra help?

So, you ask these questions and by watching their answers you know whether they’ve got it under control or whether they might need help, and you can identify issues early and engage some mitigations.

Sometimes engineers will let things fester. They feel like, “This is my responsibility and I’m going to solve it.” But it may be too big for them to solve. When you see that, you say, “Okay. I’m going to talk to your branch chief about the problem and I’m going to see if maybe he’s got somebody to help you on this problem. Otherwise, you’re going to be the critical path soon, and you’re going to be the one delaying these other 42 people on this project,” which we try to avoid.

So, walking around is sort of another element of turning over rocks. You’re just sort of walking around and letting people talk to you and tell you what’s going on. So, this act of just engaging at the surface, just a little below the surface until you start seeing things, and then digging a little deeper when you do find things is a really key trait for a successful project manager.

Host: How do you anticipate the work you do will influence life around us?

Cobleigh: It’s always a challenge when you’re doing research to know whether what you’re working on is going to succeed and go out there in the marketplace. Sometimes it’s very clear, the path. With the low-boom airplane, we see that once we break down these barriers that exist, that prevent us from having supersonic flight, that the market, the industry out there will fill that void and take things to market, create jobs.

So, I think there are some technologies like low-boom creating totally new markets, like this Urban Air Mobility market that I mentioned before. It’s going to transform the way people work and the way they can get things done and, hopefully, lessen some of the mobility problems on the ground with all the traffic we see. So, those types of things opening up new markets are really interesting.

There’s a lot of technology we do that are very focused, working some technology to improve safety on something or to improve efficiency in engines and things like that. Sometimes those make it into the products, eventually, and sometimes they don’t. It’s research. You’re not going to hit a homerun every single time.

But when you look at the airplane industry that’s out there and all the aircraft that people fly on regularly, we like to say that when you’re flying, you’re flying with NASA Aeronautics, because the technologies that NASA has developed are on every part of every airplane that exists right now. From the early days of NASA to now, we’ve made airplanes more efficient, carry more passengers. We’re using significantly less fuel than we did decades ago in the current generation of airplanes.

Of course, industry has a major role in that, but NASA has this role that’s really key for the government to push things along. We’re helping reduce the noise on airplanes that impact people, especially the ones that live near airports, even subsonic airplanes.

I had a recent project within my project, FDC, to reduce the noise on landing gear. NASA has done such a good job on reducing the noise of engines over the last couple of decades that now the engines are roughly as loud as other parts of the airplane when they’re coming in for a landing. The flaps on the airplanes, the landing gear coming down create almost as much noise as the engines. So, now we’re having to work on how do we reduce noise of the air flowing over landing gear when they come out and over flaps.

So, we had a project looking at how can we streamline the airflow, essentially, or dampen the noise that is generated by landing gear. We did a whole flight program on that and found that it was very successful.

So, it has a potential to influence in so many ways. Aeronautics does work in airspace management, to increase the number of aircraft that go through the system and to make them safer. We’re working on small airplanes up to large airplanes. So, there’s just a lot of application. Like I said, you don’t hit a homerun with everything, but you push it as far as you can and basically allow the people that spend billions of dollars building these aircrafts and these systems to make those decisions with the new technologies, whether they have a role in the next generation of airplanes or not.

Host: Thank you so much, Brent. We appreciate you taking time to join us today.

Cobleigh: Okay, yeah. Thanks. It’s been fun.

Host: Links to topics discussed during our conversation are available at APPEL.NASA.gov/podcast, along with Brent’s bio and a show transcript.

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