Oct. 3, 2011 at 10:18 PM ET
NASA says it has awarded the largest prize in aviation history, $1.35 million, to Team Pipistrel-USA.com for pushing the envelope on electric-powered flying.
To win the CAFE Green Flight Challenge, the Pennsylvania-based team's Taurus G4 electric airplane flew a 200-mile course from Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, Calif., in less than two hours. That's one of the requirements for the prize. Another is that the plane had to use less than the equivalent of a gallon of gas per person. The Pipistrel Taurus G4 exceeded that efficiency standard, flying the course on just a little more than a half-gallon of fuel equivalent per passenger.
What's even more amazing is that the runner-up did nearly as well. That earned a $120,000 second-place purse for California-based Team e-Genius and its electric-powered plane.
"Two years ago, the thought of flying 200 miles at 100 mph in an electric aircraft was pure science fiction," Jack W. Langelaan, team leader of Team Pipistrel-USA.com, said in today's award announcement. "Now we are all looking forward to the future of electric aviation."
Eric Raymond, e-Genius' team leader, was diplomatic in his remarks. "I'm proud that Pipistrel won," he said. "They've been a leader in getting these things into production, and the team really deserves it and worked hard to win this prize."
NASA's acting chief technologist, Joe Parrish, said the winner proved that "ultra-efficient aviation is within our grasp."
The challenge was one of several that NASA has backed over the past six years to encourage the development of technologies that could improve the way spaceflight and aeronautics is done. (Remember that the first "A" in NASA stands for aeronautics.) In a way, this particular prize goes full circle: NASA's Centennial Challenges were inspired by the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, which in turn was inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize for nonstop trans-Atlantic aviation.
Charles Lindbergh won the Orteig Prize in 1927, and his grandson, Erik Lindbergh, was on hand at the Green Flight Challenge to pass along a prize of his own: the Lindbergh Prize for Quietest Aircraft. Team eGenius won that $10,000 award, which was donated by Jean Schulz, the widow of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.
NASA provides the purse for the CAFE Green Flight Challenge, with sponsorship support from Google and management by the CAFE Foundation (CAFE stands for Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency). Fourteen teams registered for the competition and collectively spent more than $4 million over the past two-plus years in pursuit of the purse. Most of the teams relied on electric engines, but the entries also included some planes powered by gasoline or biofuels.
Three planes made it to last week's finals: the Pipistrel and eGenius planes as well as a gasoline-powered plane fielded by the Florida-based Phoenix Air team. Among the factors that gave the Pipistrel Taurus G4 a boost were its dual-fuselage design, which allowed for a 75-foot wingspan with ultra-light construction, a super-efficient powertrain for its 6.5-foot-wide propeller and 450 pounds of lithium-polymer batteries. (EAA News delves into the details, and NASA has a Flickr photo gallery chronicling the competition.)
NASA hopes that the Green Flight Challenge will lead to even more ambitious aerial feats of fuel efficiency. Parabolic Arc's Doug Messier quotes Pipistrel's Langelaan as saying that his company is willing to contribute $100,000 toward a new prize for the first electric aircraft to break the speed of sound. How long would that take? Langelaan estimates five years.
Do you agree, or is that too much of a blue-sky prediction? Are electric aircraft blazing a trail for the future of aviation, or is this just a million-dollar sideshow? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.
More bright ideas on the tech frontier:
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