By Ben Iannotta|March 2019
Doug Stanley can’t help but think about Sept. 26, 2022. That’s when his organization’s founding cooperative agreement expires with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Since the National Institute of Aerospace opened its doors in 2002, its researchers have delved into such groundbreaking topics as exotic materials and urban air mobility. Graduate students from partner universities flock to conduct research in its labs and learn from experts at nearby Langley. Meanwhile, NIA’s communications team created the popular “Innovation Now” radio series and worked with NASA to create the “NASA 360” television show. It’s been a great run, with staff growing to 110, but Stanley can’t take for granted that Langley will decide to renew the agreement. I spoke to him by phone to hear about NIA’s diversification plans and the latest aerospace research.
In his words
Inspired by Challenger disaster
I saw the Challenger accident in the student union at Baylor. That really got me interested in learning more about the whole program and space, and just coincidentally, or as fate may have it, that week, we had kind of a bulletin board in the math department. They were advertising this Joint Institute for Advancement of Flight Sciences called the JIAFS program. That program was resident at NASA Langley and run by the George Washington University. And so, I applied for that because, basically it came with a scholarship that paid all your expenses in addition to tuition. I ended up getting accepted in that program and got my master’s at George Washington University, resident, basically in NASA Langley, taking courses and working in the vehicle analysis branch. My master’s thesis was on reusable rockets to replace the space shuttle and make them safer. So, it’s an interesting turn of events that took me away from philosophy and into engineering of aerospace systems and rocket science, and designing those vehicles. When I graduated from that program, I went to work right here in the vehicle analysis branch. I was always interested in the big picture, which is what philosophy comes from, how it all fits together.
NIA as a startup
NIA was birthed out of NASA Langley under the leadership of Dr. Charlie Harris, who was head of the research directorate at that time. NASA Langley was looking for a strategic partner, and there wasn’t a major research university here in this area. They wanted Charlie and others to envision having an institute outside the gates, of multiple universities they could collaborate with. They had the idea to go out for procurement for a National Institute of Aerospace. That was the name that the group that bid on it came up with. I wasn’t here at that time. This group of universities in the mid-Atlantic region ended up winning a 20-year cooperative agreement with NASA Langley, although we do work for other folks in NASA through it as well. NIA was basically a startup. There were three first employees and now there are 110. NIA grew from almost nothing in revenue to now we have our largest revenue in history this year of $35 million. We also have faculties and universities here and students and consultants, so there’s really 200 people here on site.
NIA graduate program
We have a unique graduate education program involving nine different universities where a student can come here and typically funded under a grant, often from NASA Langley or other places. They can take courses from all the universities. You can take up to half your courses from other universities in our course exchange program and get master’s and doctorate degrees in aerospace-related disciplines that are offered by the universities. We’re not a degree-granting institution, but we are a convener and host of the faculty here and the students here on site.
Right now, we’re really in a growth phase to try to expand beyond NASA. We’ve been doing that the past several years. We established agreements with the FAA tech center in New Jersey, with the Army research labs, with commercial companies. We’re trying to diversify because we established a 20-year co-op agreement that’s coming up in 3½ years. So, we are looking at, “What would we be beyond NASA if something were to happen with that co-op agreement?” Of course, we’d love to have that continue and hope that it will get renewed with NASA Langley. That’s one event coming up that’s kind of focusing us on diversification, and of course, we want to continue to grow our research portfolio and develop new technologies like boron nitride nanotubes and other technologies. We’re working on the Smart Airports initiative and technologies related to that. So, there’s several different thrusts we have going forward into the future in the next few years.
Uber Elevate Summits
We’ve been a leader in on-demand mobility, what’s called urban air mobility, often now as well. That culminated in Uber getting involved in doing the Elevate Summits, and we’ve stayed involved. We do about $2.5 million a year in on-demand mobility studies and technology development right now. So, that’s been a major thrust for us. We kind of built up the whole ecosystem of industry and NASA and FAA, and small startup companies and the key players and pulling them together. A lot of our university folks in particular have been doing studies for NASA and others in the community, and we continue to do research like noise-reduction technologies and other technologies to support that whole emerging industry.
Upbeat about urban air mobility
There are some very smart venture capital groups investing hundreds of millions, literally over a billion dollars, and companies developing these systems as we speak. It’s not just people developing in their garages. There are thousands of people employed and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent doing this. And FAA is very serious. Other countries, they’re very serious. I mean, Kitty Hawk, their core vehicle is operating in New Zealand, testing there in a friendly environment. There are companies all over the world testing vehicles. Dubai has been very forward-looking. And of course, the city of Dallas and Los Angeles announced partnerships with Uber to build vertiports and to start experimental operations there. So yeah, absolutely. The automation will follow on to what’s happening with the ground vehicles. People are getting used to it, adopting automated vehicles, and I think that will eventually happen with automated aircraft.
FAA and urban air mobility
Markets that are more open to innovation will be early adopters of [urban air mobility and on-demand flight]. Unfortunately, I think a lot of that’s going to start overseas because we have so much stricter regulations with FAA. However, the folks at FAA are doing a great job and being very forward-looking. And I think with time, there’ll be concepts flying and operational, funded operations in the airspace. I think they’ll initially start on an experimental basis. That’s the plan now. And you’ll see those flying in a few years, but you probably won’t have FAA-approved large-scale operations for another decade.
Researching urban air mobility, on-demand flight
We work with our member universities, I mentioned the nine, but we have funded 120 different universities over the past 15 years, to do collaborative research. We bring together teams of multiple universities to attack problems. We’ve done that for NASA and customers in the on-demand mobility area. Acoustics is something we’ve looked at, active noise control for rotors, and modeling the acoustics, as well with some of our faculty members here locally. So, that’s been an area for us.
Research with Airbus
We’ve had a collaborative relationship with Airbus now for 12 years. We’ve probably averaged about a million dollars a year in research and various areas such as nanomaterials, laminar flow control, wireless technologies, uncertainty quantification management, various acoustic technologies like metamaterial, acoustic metamaterial panels that we’ve built and tested.
Reducing noise, cleaning bugs off wings
Chris Fuller is one of the Langley professors here from Virginia Tech, and he does a lot of work in active noise control and acoustic metamaterials. He prepared panels and tested them in Hamburg. Acoustic metamaterials can be arranged to refocus sound and dampen various frequencies of sound. And so that’s something that could be a panel on a commercial aircraft. We’ve even looked at using surface acoustic waves to vibrate off and displace and dislodge bugs from aircraft edges. We had a big workshop on that with Airbus and NASA, because that’s a big issue; when insects remain on the leading edge of an aircraft, [it] can cause drag and inhibit laminar airfoils from working, for example. So, the big issue is how do you clean the airfoil, maybe after you’ve taken off from South Florida.
Pioneering boron nitride nanotubes
Boron nitride nanotubes, BNNT, is the technology we’re best known for in terms of world-class capability. It’s something we developed together with NASA and actually the Jefferson Lab right here in Newport News, Virginia, and the original patents. And then we licensed those to a company called BNNT LLC who’s developing even more efficient ways to use a laser-based process that grows boron nitride nanotubes. The benefit of boron nitride nanotubes is that, basically, carbon nanotubes are essentially the strongest material based on specific strength on Earth, and boron nitride nanotubes are another stable form of nanotubes like carbon nanotubes. They have about 85 to 90 percent the strength-to-weight capabilities, but things like twice the temperature capability. So, you think of not just using them in polymer-based nanocomposites, but now metal matrix-based nanocomposites to higher temperatures, and aircraft engines, not just structures. They can be good up to 900 degrees Celsius. So, that’s twice the capabilities of carbon nanotubes before they start to deteriorate in strength.
Radiation shielding out of boron nitride nanotubes
A couple of other properties of BNNT is that boron is a neutron absorber, so it’s something that can provide some level of radiation protection, and it’s also piezoelectric. So, if you run an electric current through it displaces, so you can think of nano and micro level actuators and machines as well. NASA was first interested and has actually been testing on it for radiation shielding. So, you can have a multifunctional structure on a space vehicle that provides some level of radiation shielding while providing an integrated nanocomposite. It’s much lighter weight to have dual benefits for missions.
Next challenge for boron nitride nanotubes
The biggest issue is commercial yield. The process we use, they’re able to make a lot of single- and two-wall tubes, very high-aspect ratio, 1,000 to 10,000, and very high purity, so they don’t need as much post processing. And so it’s the highest quality way of doing them. The issue though is yield, and some of the other processes that are lower quality have much higher yield. The biggest challenge now is trying to get the product to a commercially viable production level to be useful for large-scale applications. We have licensed this technology company [BNNT LCC] that’s improved that by probably a couple of orders of magnitude in terms of the yield to where it’s getting capable of that.
Affordable space launch
I did reusable studies early in my career, and at that time we were having 20 or 30 U.S. launches a year at most, and global launches, 70 or 80. There wasn’t a whole lot of addressable market. And now that’s increased to the hundreds. SpaceX is proving that out and other companies are looking at proving that out as well. The [U.S.] Air Force has got programs with reusable boosters. As you get more reusability, you can reduce cost. So you start a virtuous cycle of increased demand as costs go down with a price elasticity curve as in other industries, and then it’s really starting to happen. SpaceX through their vertical integration, showed that even with existing technologies you get costs down from $4,000 or $5,000 a pound — back in my day — to $1,500 to $2,000 a pound. Now, as you start adding reusability and increased demand and volume, you can certainly get under $1,000 a pound, I think, in true commercial markets very soon.