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NASA's version of 'Shark Tank' results in six aviation moonshots

Mona Lalwani, @monalalwani
June 22, 2015
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NASA wants to change the way planes fly. As part of a new Convergent Aeronautics Solutions project, the agency's innovators recently formed teams to pitch their wildest ideas to a jury. Out of the 17 teams that presented their aviation-transforming studies to a panel of NASA managers, six teams secured funding for their research. While the process seems an awful lot like a VC funding round, according to program manager Doug Rohn, no monetary return on the investment is expected. The program is designed to back seemingly improbable ideas that might lead to solutions to the problems that plague aviation.

To qualify, all the ideas had to take form as a technology, tool or process. One of the more bizarre yet ingenious ideas explores the possibility of an aircraft structure doubling as an energy storage system. It would eliminate the need to carry the heavy load of batteries that weighs down a plane in flight. Another idea suggests artificial intelligence for drones that would allow them to think for themselves. The team plans to explore advanced programming to see if unmanned machines can emulate human pilots and alter their own course without any remote intervention. A team also proposed adaptive digital composite aerostructures. Depending on the flight conditions, what if a plane could channel Optimus Prime and transform its shape midair? The project is essentially a feasibility test where failure isn't frowned upon. In fact it's expected. But even if one of the shortlisted ideas can push past the limitations of aviation, it just might be worth investing in wild ideas.

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