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NASA Tests Flying Airbag 118

Posted by samzenpus
from the drop-the-cloud-anchor dept.
coondoggie writes "NASA is looking to reduce the deadly impact of helicopter crashes on their pilots and passengers with what the agency calls a high-tech honeycomb airbag known as a deployable energy absorber. So in order to test out its technology NASA dropped a small helicopter from a height of 35 feet to see whether its deployable energy absorber, made up of an expandable honeycomb cushion, could handle the stress. The test crash hit the ground at about 54MPH at a 33 degree angle, what NASA called a relatively severe helicopter crash."

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NASA Tests Flying Airbag

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Thought you meant throwing a Senator out the window...

  • by macraig (621737) <mark...a...craig@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @03:24PM (#30379806)

    ... when you strap my mother-in-law to a turbine engine. The rest of the plane is optional.

  • One of the main hindrances (the primary hindrance?) to adopting widespread flying cars or other airborne vehicles is safety, and helping to keep people from killing themselves in spectacularly Youtube-worthy ways. The development of an advanced "airbag" like this will really help accelerate the dawn of "highways in the sky", IMO. (Disclaimer: I work for NASA, albeit as an IT geek)

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I think the bigger problem is what people will run into. I personally do not look forward to some soccer mom flying around in an SUV-like thing near my house.
    • by egburr (141740)

      So, does the airbag deploy during the initial 100+ mph head-on collision 100 feet up in the air, or does it wait for the subsequent collision with the ground 20 seconds later?

      The safety issues the would worry me are those of incompetent or incapacitated drivers not following the proper flight paths.

      Also, consider how difficult it is to consistently and coherently mark a 2D surface of limited width (roads) and get people to understand and obey those markings; how would you mark a traffic path in the air? The

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by CaptSlaq (1491233)
        Oooh, I am *ALWAYS* hesitant to put that much control into something that would have (effectively) very limited failover capability. Semi-autonomous vehicles in combination with said centralized oversight (eg: malfunction notification of a specific unit that the vehicle's software could try to navigate around) would be the far more sane way to do it, IMO.

        Mercedes and BMW are both heavily investing in stuff that will make the autonomous vehicle a reality in a few years. Some things are already making it

      • by DougF (1117261)

        So, does the airbag deploy during the initial 100+ mph head-on collision 100 feet up in the air, or does it wait for the subsequent collision with the ground 20 seconds later?

        What gravity well do you live in that it takes 20 seconds to fall 100ft?

        • by egburr (141740)

          Sorry, I didn't do the math. It was meant as a concept example, not a rigorous proof, How about this instead?

          Does the airbag deploy during the initial 100+ mph head-on collision X feet up in the air, or does it wait for the subsequent collision with the ground Y seconds later?

          You can fill in the X and Y with appropriate numbers.

          Be sure to consider that the vehicles may still have some lift capability remaining after the crash, so the fall may not be at maximum free-fall (accounting for altitude, initial vel

          • by DougF (1117261)
            If I were designing the airbag, I'd look for direction of the force from the impact to determine deployment. Another factor may be to consider if the helicopter has the ability to autorotate and slow the second impact (that would call for some impressive sensor/computation combination in milliseconds). But, like a car getting hammered from the front and rear in a multi-car pileup, the first deployment may only keep you alive long enough to be killed by the second impact.... Having actually pulled dead airc
    • by couchslug (175151)

      "The development of an advanced "airbag" like this will really help accelerate the dawn of "highways in the sky","

      There is no need for energy-wasting mass adoption of light aircraft,and no airbag/drogue chute/etc will solve the problems of midair collisions and running into expensive stuff such as buildings. Most people should not be trusted with an airplane of any sort because they are simple, easily distracted, and not very intelligent.

      The best thing about general aviation is the high barrier to entry.

    • by vtcodger (957785)

      ***The development of an advanced "airbag" like this will really help accelerate the dawn of "highways in the sky"***

      Five car bombs in Baghdad yesterday. 127 dead. 500 Injured. And that's despite checkpoints and vehicle inspections.

      You want to try to implement building security in a world with several hundred million flying vehicles that are easily converted to DIY cruise missiles? Think about it. ... Really think about it.

    • I don't think safety is a primary hinderance at this stage, yeah light aircraft are a bit more dangerous than cars but not insanely so.

      At some point if light air traffic were to increase hugely then we would need some kind of highways in the sky system for light planes but I personally don't see us getting to the point for other reasons.

      You don't define flying car so lets consider a few categories of personal air vehicle and thier problems (ordered from most currently practical to least currently practical)

      • oops I pasted something in the wrong place, the corrected version of the list is below

        conventional light aircraft: cramped (depending on just how much you are willing to spend), fairly expensive to buy and maintain (but less so than other options here), needs to be stored at an airport (adds cost) which you must return to to pick it up again.

        roadable aircraft: cramped , regulatory issues with trying to get approved as both a car and a plane, special mechanisms needed for conversion between flight and road c

  • I liked the system that they had in Demolition Man. When the car that Sylvester Stallone was driving crashed, it filled with foam. Initially, it came out like shaving cream, but by the time the crash had finished, it was like styrofoam. There are two problems I can see with it. The foam will suffocate you if it solidifies around (or even in) your mouth and nose. Also, it may be difficult to extract yourself from the foam.
    • Re:Demolition Man (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @03:37PM (#30379912)

      Here's my question, which I also found myself thinking after watching Iron Man. Sure enough, the foam or the super exoskeleton or whatever can protect the outside of your body and the bones from harm when undergoing a sudden deceleration, such as crashing or whatnot, but what about all of the soft things sloshing around inside your body, like your brain, your viscera, etc? Surely they are going to, well, *slosh* around violently upon a sudden stop like that. I think boxers have proved that point very well over the years.
      Yes, they are fiction and I treat them accordingly, but such egregious fact-ignoring is a bit scary sometimes.

      • by natehoy (1608657)

        The advantage of foam is that it spreads the impact out evenly over every square inch of the portion of your body facing the impact. There's still a speed at which hitting something is going to cause internal damage and/or death, but it's EXTREMELY high compared to having the entire impact absorbed over a smaller space (such as a seatbelt, which isn't a lot of square inches of coverage, really, but is sufficient to save your life during a very impressive crash).

        Isolate the entire body from relative movemen

        • by gknoy (899301)

          Spreading the impact is great for reducing trauma forces on the outside of your body, but doesn't protect your brain from smashing into your skull when the skull (and your body) decelerates quickly.

          • the inside of your skull has cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which has the same role as this foam. The foam should anyway reduce the impact on you head a bit because it's a bit flexible.
      • by T Murphy (1054674)
        We would need some way to make our bodies act like water and cornstarch, but that probably would induce a whole new set of dangerous problems.
      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        Presumably the foam would be able to decelerate your body over a long enough distance to keep you from being seriously injured. The Iron Man suit simply doesn't have enough room to allow that even with the Stark Industries super-shock-absorbing padding.

        Of course in the context of the Iron Man movie, Tony Stark got the mandatory supernatural-durability upgrade that all heroes get even if they supposedly have no supernatural abilities. He survived crashing into the desert in his original suit which had zero

        • by bar-agent (698856)

          Tony Stark got the mandatory supernatural-durability upgrade that all heroes get even if they supposedly have no supernatural abilities. He survived crashing into the desert in his original suit which had zero padding and would have actually made the landing far more deadly, and then survived rocketing full speed and spine-first into the ceiling.

          Hey, if Indiana Jones can survive being flung a mile by an atomic bomb inside an old Frigidaire, Tony Stark can survive all that.

      • Indeed, no one like liver puree, less so when it's their liver. If my crashing helicopter was going to deploy an airbag, I'd like it to be one of the pontoon boat sized ones that are used for movie stunt work... Given the volume of one of those and the speed required for useful deployment, I'd be a bit concerned about flying around with all that airbag propellant (it's explosives, really) right under my ass.

        Personally, I'd like to see something that locks (or jettisons) the rotor and then deploys a whole cr

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Cryacin (657549)

          Personally, I'd like to see something that locks (or jettisons) the rotor

          I'm pretty sure that the poor schmuck watching on the ground would prefer your rotor to lock rather than jettison. Imagine a giant ninja start flying at your head.

          • Stupid giant ninja's always starting things.

            I'd rather have the rotor still spinning, causing drag that slows my descent. See autorotation [wikipedia.org] for a description of this phenomenon.

      • Sure enough, the foam or the super exoskeleton or whatever can protect the outside of your body and the bones from harm when undergoing a sudden deceleration, such as crashing or whatnot, but what about all of the soft things sloshing around inside your body, like your brain, your viscera, etc? Surely they are going to, well, *slosh* around violently upon a sudden stop like that.

        This does happen, but humans are able to survive such effects of rapid deceleration in car crashes that occur on speeds higher than a typical terminal velocity of a crashing helicopter (if we believe the figure quoted in TFS).

      • Well if the foam compressed slowly then it could still gradually decelerate you and prevent said sloshing.
      • Your Brain can take a frontal impact pretty well, but when you are hit from the side, the lobes are pressed together, and it's the connecting 'tissue' that takes the damage of the compression.

        Falling vertically and hitting the ground does not tend to involve these side on impacts, and any flying machine can be designed to fall like an arrow, if dropping out of the sky without power.

        If you were to hit the ground at 55mph it is no different to ploughing into a wall with a car at 55mph. If simple airbags + sea

  • When I was young I used to wonder whether they couldn't wrap people in a stiff rubber like material that would just bounce off the ground if the plane crashed.

    Of course, it would take some time to find you after your superball bounced around the country 23 times.

    • by goodmanj (234846) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @03:45PM (#30380018)

      Basic physics: the forces involved in a bouncy collision are *greater* than the forces involved in an identical "smooshy" collision. Why? Because the crash has to not just bring you to a stop, but throw you back away again.

      What you want is a smooshy collision that takes place over a long time. Thus, airbags.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bertok (226922)

        Basic physics: the forces involved in a bouncy collision are *greater* than the forces involved in an identical "smooshy" collision. Why? Because the crash has to not just bring you to a stop, but throw you back away again.

        What you want is a smooshy collision that takes place over a long time. Thus, airbags.

        Reminds me of Hollywood physics, where it's the "ground" that kills, not the "stop". The protagonist is always saved by a safety rope, even if it stops him instantly 1m from the ground after a 1000m fall.

        • by jpmorgan (517966)

          Yeah, I'm sure climbers and bungee jumpers never thought of that.

          A safety rope DOESN'T stop you instantly. A good safety rope is designed to stretch and absorb much of the energy of your fall, and stop your fall over a comparatively long period of time.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Chris Burke (6130)

            Yeah, I'm sure climbers and bungee jumpers never thought of that.

            A safety rope DOESN'T stop you instantly.

            But in Hollywood they do. And don't just think ropes, think Spiderman plucking you from the air as you fall (thus not only causing an immediate upward acceleration to break your fall, but a sideways one so you swing away).

            Even worse is when the rope instantly stops the person just before they hit the ground, but the rope isn't attached to a harness but around their ankle (so the near-hit is made even m

      • What you really want is something that absorbs the energy of the motion. You want something that collapses slowly, while arresting as much momentum as possible, and then also have a non-deflating portion as a final cushion. An airbag is not going to do this, at least not an airbag in the common understanding. Now an airbag that slowly deflates as you impact it would meet some of this requirement. I think NASA's honeycomb airbag, probably, is something like this. What I'm describing is used by Hollywood stun
  • And? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @03:30PM (#30379860)

    The thing hit the ground, and what happened? Worst. summary. ever. From nasa: "Engineers say the MD-500 survived relatively intact as a result of the honeycomb cushion. "

    • "The test crash hit the ground at about 54MPH at a 33 degree angle, what NASA called a relatively severe helicopter crash."

      I agree. Unless it hits at 300,000 Km/s, let's say a crash is 'relatively severe'.

  • by TheModelEskimo (968202) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @03:39PM (#30379958)
    ...from becoming a helicopter pilot. In fact, just last night my wife said, "sure honey, you can become a pilot just as soon as they invent the deployable energy absorber."

    C'MON NASA!!!
  • I can't say I've studied helicopter accidents very much, but every one that I've seen video of involved a main rotor or tail rotor failure. The airbag seems like a good idea if the craft can autorotate down to the ground, but if the rotors are compromised you probably aren't going to hit belly first.

    Perhaps there is a selection effect? I wouldn't likely see many successful autorotate landings of helicopters since they aren't sensational enough to make it onto the nightly news.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by slinches (1540051)

      every one that I've seen video of involved a main rotor or tail rotor failure

      The more spectacular helicopter crashes happen this way, but loss of power events are more common. The most severe of these occur at low altitudes as there isn't enough time to successfully autorotate. So this type of device should improve survivability in the most common crash/hard landing scenarios.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      Autorotation after damage in combat is common. The air bag is a natural safety measure for helos at low height with little/no forward speed over a landing zone.

    • by Painted (1343347)
      Autorotation works just fine during a tail rotor failure. In my two years working for a helicopter company (which happened to be a unusually bad couple years for crashes in our area), the causes of crashes were mostly main rotor blade touches (ie, smacking the rotor into something, losing lift, and rolling down the mountain), or long line incidents (water bucket caught in tree, with predictable "inverted pendulum" motion).
  • TFS didn't mention it, but the helicopter and "passengers" (excluding the skids) survived the crash.
  • On a related note, I think final car safety tests should be performed with the CEOs of the car company inside the car.
    • by vlm (69642)

      On a related note, I think final car safety tests should be performed with the CEOs of the car company inside the car.

      The inadequate suspension of the Chevy Corvair killed one of a Cadillac General Managers sons (pretty sure that was Cal Verner)... Didn't help as much as you'd think, still all spin and coverup.

    • On a related note, I think final car safety tests should be performed with the CEOs of the car company inside the car.

      When romans inaugurated their bridges, the architect was below them. They lasted two thousand years.

  • Video (Score:4, Informative)

    by e4g4 (533831) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @04:29PM (#30380412)
    This site has a video [nasa.gov] and some more information.
  • Must...resist...Rush...Limbaugh...joke...

  • I'm all for using science and research to improve safety, but this seems a little pointless to me. All helicopter crashes can be generally lumped into two categories: those in which control is lost at a relatively high altitude, and those in which control is lost only a short
    distance from the ground.

    In the former case, no one survives. Once a helicopter pilot loses control of the machine, it has all the aerodynamics of a grand piano and will collide with the ground with much the same effect.

    In the latter ca

    • by aXis100 (690904)

      Helicopers can regain quite a bit of control and actually perform a propper landing if they loose power high enough. They can dive and autogyro to get the rotors spinning, then level out at the last second for an emergency landing.

      Not something I'd want to experience though.

    • by Painted (1343347)
      Remember that when the rotor hits the ground, it has considerable angular velocity (barring a complete transmission failure and lockup, which is far far more likely to asplode the transmission than halt the main rotor), so many (most?) of those flying bits you're referring to are a danger to others at the crash site, not the occupants of the craft.
  • As some know, cars are well equipped with something that is called a crumple zone. Airbags keep your seatbelt from breaking your neck, but the crumple zone is what absorbs most of the force of the crash. See this video [youtube.com] for why your crumple zones make a big difference over the air bags.
  • by trygstad (815846) on Wednesday December 09, 2009 @06:16PM (#30381876)
    I really don't know what the heck they mean by "Relatively Intact". In my 3300+ hours of piloting helicopters the only valid criteria was "Could you walk away from it?" That's the standard pilots (and I assume passengers) really care about.
  • It's not proper collisions testing unless MythBusters does it. Preferably with big explosions somewhere in the process.

  • This could be incredible useful for automobiles. In order to increase efficiency you need to drop weight (as in, stop having SUV-like weight). The problem is that that weight creates a certain amount of crash safety (for the SUV driver to some extent - not so much thought, and not at all for anyone driving a smaller car). Given that, being able to use a light-weight energy absorption system like this could solve that problem and allow cars to have weights below 1000 lbs yet still have excellent crash sa

It is much easier to suggest solutions when you know nothing about the problem.

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