NASA creates digital modeling tool to create new aircraft designs

NASA creates digital modeling tool to create new aircraft designs
NASA creates digital modeling tool to create new aircraft designs

NASA has created a new digital modeling tool for aeronautical engineers to innovate new aircraft designs, drawing on decades of experience using highly advanced computer codes for aviation. With this tool, researchers can create simulations of concept aircraft with never-before-used technology and receive detailed data on how it would work.

Called “Aviary” because of the enclosures where birds are kept and studied, The tool creates virtual models of aircraft based on information provided by the user. In this analogy, Aviary is the enclosure and the birds are the virtual models of airplanes. Investigators can enter information about the shape, range and other characteristics of an aircraft. Aviary then creates a corresponding digital model of that aircraft.

Aviary is a major step forward. Unlike previous aviation modeling tools, Aviary can be linked with other codes and programs to expand and customize its capabilities. “We wanted to make it easy to extend the code and link it with other tools,” said Jennifer Gratz, who leads Aviary integration and development. “Aviary is intentionally designed to be able to integrate disciplines more closely.”

Aviary is free and accessible to everyone. The code continues to grow as contributions are made by the public. The code is hosted on GitHub, along with its key documentation. Aviary is a descendant of two previous modeling tools created by NASA decades ago: the Flight Optimization System and the General Aviation Synthesis Program.

These older legacy codes, however, were comparatively limited in terms of flexibility and detail. “Older legacy codes were not designed to handle these newer concepts, like hybrid electric aircraft,” Gratz said. “They thought that certain systems were more separated than they really are in the vehicles we imagine now.”

Aviary closes that gap, allowing researchers Seamlessly incorporate detailed information that reflects the most integrated systems and interlocks needed to model newer aircraft.

The team started building Aviary by taking the best parts of legacy code and merging them, then adding new code to make Aviary extensible and compatible with other tools. “That’s one of its most important features,” Gratz said. “Aviary is flexible enough that you can decide what you want to learn more about and then set it up to teach you.”

Learning specific, customized information in advance can inform researchers which direction aircraft design should take before conducting costly flight tests. Instead of having to use integrated estimates for certain parameters, such as battery power level, as would be done with previous tools, Aviary users can easily use information generated by other tools with information specific to batteries.

Another capability Aviary touts is gradients. A gradient, essentially, is how much a certain value affects another value when changed. Let’s say a researcher is considering what power a battery should have to successfully power an airplane. Using older systems, the researcher would have to run a separate simulation for each battery power level.

But Aviary can perform this task in a simulation considering gradients. “You could tell Aviary to figure out how powerful a battery needs to be to be worth using. It will execute a simulated flight mission and return with the result,” Gratz said. “Older tools can’t do that without modifications.”

Aviary can simulate all of these concepts simultaneously; no other modeling tool can easily consider previous legacy tools, separate user-introduced tools, and gradients. “Other tools have some of these things, but none of them have all of them,” Gratz said. It’s more, Aviary comes with extensive documentation. “Documentation is another important part of Aviary,” Gratz added. “If no one can understand the tool, no one can use it. By having a good history of Aviary’s development and changes, more people can benefit. You don’t have to be an expert to use it.”

NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ames Research Center in California, and Langley Research Center in Virginia contributed to Aviary.

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