NASA has completed its inaugural Gateways to Blue Skies competition, naming the winner, runner-up, and ‘most intriguing concept’ from eight finalists
Experience, knowledge, and wisdom count for a lot when it comes to problem-solving. However, sometimes we can get stuck in old ways of thinking and stagnate in how we approach things without being able to shift our perspective and imagine a different future. For that, often it takes minds potentially less molded to how things 'should' be.
On Monday, NASA announced the winners of its inaugural Gateways to Blue Skies aeronautics competition, where students got to tour the Langley facilities and shared their ideas for the sustainable airports of the future.
The Gateways to Blue Skies Competition is sponsored by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Its ambition is to engage college students in researching climate-friendly technologies and applications that will establish a net-zero emissions future for aviation.
This year's inaugural edition focused on what the aviation landscape will look like in 2050 – including aircraft design, alternative fuels, aircraft operations, efficiency improvements, and any other technological advancement that will help create a sustainable industry.
Eight finalist teams competed with their concepts for future airport design, with the updates needed to turn aviation climate-friendly. Among the areas addressed were aircraft boarding, fuel storage for hydrogen, charging stations, building materials, accommodating new designs such as blended wing aircraft, vertiports for short-distance flying, and many more engaging concepts and ideas.
With their project titled "Sustainability and Connected Autonomy: A New Era for Aviation," the winners were the team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They focused on three key areas – remote pier layout, urban air mobility (UAM), and connected autonomy.
You can get a look at the imagined layout, intended to maximize apron space and feature large areas for eVTOL landing pads, in the infographic below. One of the key features of the team's airport of the future is the automation of all the ground support vehicles and functions, ferrying passengers, their luggage, and other supplies to and fro between the various areas of the airport.
The Carnegie Mellon Team has been invited to present its concept to the Airports Council International – North America. One of its members, Ioana Iacob, spoke on behalf of her winning group and its contribution,
“We are honored to have participated among such innovative groups. What we focused on was looking at the issue holistically. Solving complex engineering problems requires an interdisciplinary understanding of the science, the policy, the engineering, the public perception, and the government-industry intersection that all need to be considered and addressed for the long-term success of these large-scale projects.”
While the accomplishments of all the teams were highly impressive, the judges chose to highlight a couple of other entries. Runner-up was the team from Ohio State University and its concept called "Project ECOair." Its circularly shaped airport terminal would be powered by solar panels and wind turbines, whereas geothermal energy would provide a heating and cooling system.
While it would also feature autonomous GSE, there would be a subterranean baggage handling system, with centralized sorting and pods that would take the luggage to the gate. The gates meanwhile would also be organized into 'pods', allowing planes to depart and arrive simultaneously. The creators of ECOAir were also invited to present to the Las Vegas Airport Strategic Planning Committee.
Steven Holz, NASA University Innovation Assistant Project Manager and Blue Skies Competition Co-Chair and Program Sponsor, shared the following sentiment about the process of the competition,
“There are a myriad of technologies coming into play as we approach a 2050s aviation landscape. These students engaged with NASA’s aeronautics goals and research in a new way through this competition, and we are pleased with their efforts and submissions. Students came together with NASA subject matter experts and industry experts in an onsite forum where they were exposed to new ideas, different concepts, and even had the chance to tour NASA Langley facilities and get a close look at some of the work we’re doing in NASA Aeronautics.”
The award for "most intriguing concept went to the other team invited to share their ideas with the Las Vegas Airport Strategic Planning Committee, hailing from the University of Pennsylvania. Their project was titled Carbon Negative: A Modular Approach to Advancing Green Airport Infrastructure.
The theme of electrified ground support vehicles show up once more, as does sustainable energy supply. However, the team also thought to incorporate plenty of ideas with technologies that are only in their nascent form (not that UAM isn't), such as a system for direct air carbon capture. This would run passively due to the higher wind at the airport, without needing to be powered by a fan using electricity.
The CO2 captured from the air would then take one of two paths. One would transfer it to a geological storage site. The other would reuse the carbon to create Power-to-Liquid sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. Indeed, the team also had a highly sophisticated battery swapping and recharging system in mind, complete with a fire suppression system in the case of electrical battery fires.
Mina Cappuccio, NASA University Innovation Deputy Project Manager and Blue Skies Competition Co-Chair and Program Sponsor commented on the inaugural event which is set to be a recurring addition to the agency's agenda.
“This is exactly what we hoped this program would achieve in its first year: Eight finalist teams coming together with new concepts, sharing with and learning from NASA and industry leaders as they progress in their school and early professional careers. It is important that we find ways to ensure the work done at NASA doesn’t stay at NASA; we want it to reach tomorrow’s aviation leaders in new ways. That’s what Gateways to Blue Skies is all about.”
What does your airport of the future look like? Do you have a favorite idea from the ones that were submitted by the students? Leave a comment below and share your innovative spirit with the community and us.
Lead Sustainability Journalist – With a Masters in International Relations, Linnea has combined her love for current affairs with her passion for travel to become a key member of the Simple Flying team. With eight years’ experience in publishing and citations in publications such as CNN, Linnea brings a deep understanding of politics and future aviation tech to her stories. Based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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