NASA might see a 12 percent increase in its budget per the White House’s request for fiscal year 2021, mostly for a push to return humans to the moon by 2024 — but the aeronautics branch of the agency would also receive a 4.5 percent boost in its funding, advancing efforts in aircraft electrification for commercial and military applications.
The Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) stands to receive $819 million in fiscal 2021 as the White House increases support for research into aircraft electrification, unmanned traffic integration and safe implementation of autonomy systems — efforts that will dramatically impact the future of commercial and military aviation.
Pentagon and White House officials have expressed interest in future acquisition of electric aircraft, particularly those capable of vertical takeoff and landing, mostly for logistical support applications, with cheaper per-flight-hour and life cycle costs than helicopters. But as Brig. Gen. Walter Rugen, head of the U.S. Army’s Future Vertical Lift cross-functional team, recently pointed out, batteries and other aircraft electrification technologies aren’t yet ready for military use — an area where NASA research projects might assist.
Some of the increased ARMD budget proposed by the White House will fund the Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration, a joint project with industry and academia to test technologies that will enable airliner-size hybrid-electric aircraft through megawatt-class power systems. The proposal also funds NASA’s X-57 ‘Maxwell’ program, an all-electric airplane slated to take flight this year, generating useful data on integrating electrical systems into aircraft, safe lithium-ion battery storage and distributed electric propulsion.
The Air Force also launched ‘Agility Prime’ in the fall, an Air Force Research Lab effort requested by service acquisition chief Will Roper to leverage massive commercial investment in electric and hybrid VTOL aircraft. Roper and other Pentagon officials have since mentioned running a competition, or fly-off, to measure progress and provide data to the FAA for commercial certification purposes.
Funded by Congress at $25 million in fiscal 2020, the program doesn’t appear in the Air Force’s budget request. The Air Force and the White House did not respond to requests for comment about the future of the program.