Cover: Expanding Flight Research

Expanding Flight Research

Capabilities, Needs, and Management Options for NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate

Published Jun 27, 2016

by Jan Osburg, Philip S. Anton, Frank Camm, Jeremy M. Eckhause, Jaime L. Hastings, Jakub P. Hlavka, James G. Kallimani, Thomas Light, Chad J. R. Ohlandt, Douglas Shontz, et al.


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Research Questions

  1. What are ARMD's flight research needs over the next decade?
  2. What are the flight research capabilities that ARMD researchers can draw on?
  3. What gaps and excess capacity, if any, are there?
  4. How can ARMD management expand flight research and improve its efficiency?

NASA's Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) is working to expand flight research in order to advance the maturation and demonstrate the application of new aeronautics concepts and technologies over the next ten years. It asked RAND to assess available flight research capabilities and future needs, identify any gaps or excess infrastructure, and develop management options that would facilitate increased and improved flight research. We found that NASA has strong flight research capabilities in most areas relevant for flight research. The few gaps that we identified could be filled through partnering or acquisition of vehicles from the marketplace when needed. Other gaps exist in sub- and full-scale experimental aircraft, but these cannot be acquired before the specific research projects are planned and funded. ARMD is already pursuing multiple efforts to increase flight research. We recommend that ARMD continue its efforts to enhance long-range planning and project funding certainty so that researchers can better include flight research in their plans and specific infrastructure needs can be identified further in advance. Cost-sharing through partnerships remains a valuable option, although industry positioning for increased intellectual property rights may be a limiting factor. Stewardship of flight research capabilities can be improved by instituting a unified, matrixed management structure across centers that can help align incentives while centralizing and improving utilization, partnering, and external outreach efforts. Finally, access and sharing barriers for researchers can be lowered through a voucher system for simple flight research efforts, streamlined processes for planning and access, and instituting state-of-the-art knowledge management approaches to store flight research data and share it with the aeronautics community.

Key Findings

NASA's Flight Research Infrastructure Status

  • NASA has strong flight research capabilities in the areas of workforce, test ranges, test airspace, and chase aircraft. These support ARMD's strategic research needs in the areas of subsonic fixed-wing and vertical lift, commercial supersonic aircraft, low-carbon emission propulsion, safety, airspace operations, as well as unmanned vehicle operations and autonomy.
  • NASA also has good capabilities in subsonic and supersonic modifiable testbed aircraft.
  • While gaps exist in other areas (such as modifiable rotorcraft and large-scale transport testbed aircraft), filling these gaps would involve the acquisition of vehicles available in the marketplace; thus, they are a budget and planning challenge rather than a longer-term vehicle research, development, and production challenge.
  • There are gaps in sub- and full-scale experimental aircraft, but these aircraft cannot be acquired ahead of a specific research project.
  • Gaps can also be filled through partnering with other organizations that maintain flight research capabilities, such as U.S. industry or aerospace research agencies of allied nations.

Management Options for Facilitating Flight Research

  • Researchers identified 15 promising, mutually compatible management options (MOs) that ARMD might take to increase and improve flight research, across a range of approaches: improving strategic planning, partnering, refining the scope of ARMD research, identifying and implementing efficiency improvements, and advocating for additional funding.
  • For each MO, the researchers discussed the underlying motivation, who would be involved in approving the MO, who would implement it, associated implementation steps and rough level of effort, potential positive and negative effects, and effects on other stakeholders.


  • Synchronize research planning and capabilities management: Focus flight research on a dynamic subset of ARMD's strategic thrusts as determined by further analysis; consider reducing flight research capabilities not currently in use; implement longer-term project and program planning out to five years; and implement an annual online survey of research directions.
  • Matrix-manage flight capabilities: Institute matrixed management of flight research capabilities to increase efficiency and facilitate sharing of research center capabilities; streamline and simplify the process for researcher use of flight research capabilities; and develop an online central repository of ARMD flight research test plans, data, results, and publications that is accessible to researchers based on a graduated system of access privileges.
  • Trade agility for efficiency: Explore trading schedule and availability for reductions in infrastructure cost; use partner capabilities to fill any gaps.
  • Set aside a portion of the flight research hours for exploratory research through a voucher program for simple flight research done by internal and external researchers.
  • Articulate benefits in monetary terms to facilitate return-on-investment analysis and promote results.

The research reported here was prepared for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and conducted by the Science, Technology and Policy Program within RAND Justice, Infrastructure, and Environment.

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