The flying test laboratory of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) - D-ATRA

Whether noise reduction, passenger comfort, aerodynamics or assistance system technology - the future of aviation promises numerous technical innovations and exciting developments. The largest civilian fleet of research aircraft and helicopters operated by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is deployed worldwide throughout the year to record data on technical focal points such as wake vortices, aircraft bypass, noise emissions or cabin ventilation and to test new systems.


On a research mission at lofty heights - the DLR fleet

The range of tasks of the German Aerospace Center is as diverse as our solar system. As the research centre of the Federal Republic of Germany specialising in aeronautics and space travel, DLR is committed to research into the Earth and the planetary system. In concrete terms, this mission involves extensive research and development work in the fields of aeronautics, space travel, energy, transport, security and digitisation. The spectrum of research work ranges from basic scientific research to the development of applicable end products.

One of DLR's technical focal points is aviation. True to the motto "Flying for research", DLR operates the largest civilian fleet of research aircraft and helicopters in Europe at its two flight operations in Braunschweig and Oberpfaffenhofen. The 11 aircraft represent a new dimension in aviation research. Around 100 engineers, technicians and test pilots work tirelessly to prepare, carry out and evaluate scientific research missions at lofty heights in a technically complex and detailed manner. In many cases, the aircraft used are extensively converted in the run-up to the mission, which involves a time-consuming and costly development and certification process. While smaller modifications to the fleet can often be approved by DLR itself, the research team works closely with the German Federal Aviation Authority (LBA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on structural modifications and major changes. 


DLR's research aircraft. © DLR

DLR's research fleet is as diverse as its customers are: on up to 30 missions per year with up to 250 flight hours, DLR aircraft deliver scientific findings for national and international institutions, authorities, industrial customers and its own research programmes. The spectrum of tasks ranges from testing noise-reducing measures, evaluating new assistance systems and improving aerodynamics, to wake vortex research and high-lift research.

The research aircraft Airbus A320-323 D-ATRA

The Airbus A320-323 D-ATRA is DLR's pride and joy. As the largest research aircraft in its multi-faceted fleet, the modern flight test platform has been in service since 2008 and is continuously being further developed, modified and rebuilt. The model designation "ATRA" stands for Advanced Technology Research Aircraft and underlines the research character of the passenger aircraft stationed in Braunschweig.

The Airbus A320-232 "D-ATRA"

The largest fleet member, the Airbus A320-232 "D-ATRA", has been in service for DLR since the end of 2008. ©DLR

The basic equipment of the test object, which is designed as a passenger aircraft, is constantly being further developed by DLR and adapted to current research missions. The largest DLR research member's range of applications is extremely diverse and includes the following topics, among others:

  • Prognosis and measurement of wake vortices

  • Optimization of aerodynamics

  • Aeroelastic measurement methods

  • Studies on interior acoustics

  • Reduction of noise emissions

  • Development of ventilation concepts for the cabin

  • Measurements for engine technology

  • Navigation and communication technology

  • Optimization of approach procedures

From an aerodynamic point of view, wake vortex research with the ATRA test aircraft is of particular interest. Vortex wake vortices are particularly important for aviation during take-off and landing procedures, as they have a decisive influence on take-off and landing frequencies at airports. The flow-mechanical phenomenon is due to the lift generated at the wings and can cause sensitive capacity bottlenecks in high traffic volumes.

In order to provide pilots with an instrument for the early detection of wake vortices and the identification of alternative routes, DLR is developing the Airborne Wake Encounter Avoidance and Advisory System with the D-ATRA. The system for warning and preventing wake vortices has already been successfully tested with the test aircraft and found to be technically viable.

The D-ATRA research aircraft also makes a valuable contribution to the further development of aviation in the field of high-lift research. Against the background of increasing passenger numbers worldwide and an ever-increasing volume of air traffic, the importance of aerodynamic performance is steadily increasing, especially in the take-off and landing phase. In cooperation with the Bremen-based Airbus High-Lift Systems division, DLR is therefore researching the development of complex flap and transmission systems.

This development is highly interesting not only from an aerodynamic point of view, but also from an acoustic point of view, as the background noise during flight is largely due to aerodynamically unfavourable gaps in the landing flaps, the inlets and outlets of the engines and holes in the landing gear. DLR is actively working on the implementation of various noise reduction measures to ensure that aircraft passengers and residents near busy aviation routes can enjoy less aircraft noise in the future. The majority of these measures are based on modifications to the engines, landing gear and wings, and can therefore be implemented in the short and medium term.

One example shows how successful DLR research is in this area: 17 years ago, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) developed a vortex generator that specifically lowers the background noise at the filler cap opening under the wing of the Airbus A320. The solution is now fitted as standard in new A320 aircraft.

When technology and flight enthusiasts discuss the industry's most exciting future topics at the International Aerospace Exhibition ILA in Berlin, it is hardly surprising that DLR is also strongly represented. In 2018, among other things, an innovative fuel-saving technology based on a flow-optimised wing structure was presented.

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Sources: Neue Technologie | DLR-Forschungsflugzeug | DLR: Lärmminderung DLR: D-ATRA | DLR: Flugexperimente | DLR: Flugzeugflotte & -infrastruktur | DLR-Forschungsflotte

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