Hybrid Aircraft with Distributed Electric Propulsion

Courtesy Mark Moore, Design Engineer at NASA Langley Research Center

Courtesy Mark Moore, Design Engineer at NASA Langley Research Center

When I attended the AIAA SciTech Conference, I was impressed by a talk about electric aircraft, with a focus on distributed electric propulsion, presented by Mark Moore, a Design Engineer at NASA Langley Research Center. After returning from the conference, I started to read more about these concepts — especially looking for the benefits, challenges and most importantly to see how ANSYS simulation tools can help address the challenges.

Though the research on the hybrid electric aircraft has been going on for decades, it seems to have made rapid progress in recent years. Perhaps this is due to a range of factors such as increasing aviation fuel prices and environmental commitments spurring renewed interest. However, advances in technology have also played a role. For example, advanced materials, electronic systems and the maturity of design and analysis tools and high performance computing capabilities to support their use.

One of the key enabling technologies to make the hybrid aircraft viable is a non-conventional propulsion system called distributed propulsion, where today’s traditional high power engines are replaced by multiple low power and smaller electric engines. This crucial change would reduce the complexity of the aircraft engine (a big life-cycle maintenance cost saving),  improve the aerodynamics over the wing to reduce drag and increase lift, as well as reducing noise, which is of increasing concern in and around airports and for passenger comfort. When combined with the configurations like the more aerodynamically efficient blended wing body aircraft, it could result in fuel savings to the order of 70% when compared to existing aircraft, for similar requirements.

Well, of course there are challenges (that are similar to hybrid cars) like the need for high power density batteries, light weight superconducting electric motors, aerodynamically efficient airframes and many more — not to mention the safety and regulatory issues.  More interestingly, and analogous to the relationship between Formula 1 and mass production cars, it is the drive to innovate and address all these challenges by looking at the system as a whole using advanced concepts that can stimulate the design of a viable alternative to conventional aircraft configurations which have essentially remained unchanged for decades.  ANSYS is well placed to help address these challenges from the battery modeling, electric motors, aerodynamics and the whole system using ANSYS Multiphysics simulation solutions.

And let’s not forget that with increasing electrification comes the need for increasing amounts of certified control and display software. ANSYS now offers not only hardware simulation but simulation and automatic generation of FAA approved software.

It’s quite exciting to see that ANSYS can play the role of a catalyst to bring next generation aircraft technology into our lives sooner rather than later.

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