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NASA Could Save Airlines Millions by Solving Their Bug Problem

Tour Of The Boeing Co. Everett FactoryTour Of The Boeing Co. Everett Factory
The nose of a 787 airplane is seen during the manufacturing process at the Boeing Co. facility in Everett, Washington.Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

There’s an important aeronautics problem that keeps bugging NASA scientists.

Researchers at the U.S. space agency are plugging away to find the best way to keep dead bugs from slowing down airplanes, namely by patenting new materials that can be applied to a plane’s wings and fuselage that prevent insects from sticking to an aircraft after a mid-air collision.

According to Bloomberg, NASA’s research focuses on maximizing airplanes’ “laminar flow,” which refers to smooth airflow that cuts down on drag and can save massive amounts of fuel. But that flow is also easily disrupted by small debris such as the many flying critters that constantly smack into aircraft and leave behind a splatter that can contribute to turbulence.

Solving the issue of dead bug gunk has the potential to boost fuel efficiency by 1%—an amount that sounds insignificant, but Bloomberg notes that it could mean savings of more than $300 million per year, based on the billions of gallons of fuel the U.S. airline industry consumed last year.

 

NASA has spent roughly $10 million on its research into non-stick materials for airplanes as its researchers have been working on developing such a product for several years. Fay Collier, project manager of the agency’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project, told Bloomberg that they are “definitely on the right track.” After testing dozens of different solutions in wind tunnels, NASA now has two different materials it plans to license to private companies, though the best of that group still only blocked roughly 40% of bug splats.