NASA Demonstrates Manufacturing Methods for Hybrid Wing Aircraft | MIT Technology Review

Air travel accounts for a significant portion of carbon emissions.

Wing it: NASA has built a remote-controlled prototype of its hybrid wing design.

Aerospace engineers have long known that ditching a conventional tubular fuselage in favor of a manta-ray-like “hybrid wing” shape could dramatically reduce fuel consumption. A team at NASA has now demonstrated a manufacturing method that promises to make the design practical.

Combined with an extremely efficient type of engine, called an ultra-high bypass ratio engine, the hybrid wing design could use half as much fuel as conventional aircraft. Although it may take 20 years for the technology to come to market, the manufacturing method developed at NASA could help improve conventional commercial aircraft within the next eight to 10 years, estimates Fay Collier, a NASA program manager.

The manufacturing technique lowers the weight of structural components of an aircraft by 25 percent, which could significantly reduce fuel consumption. The advances are the culmination of a three-year, $300 million effort by NASA and partners including Pratt & Whitney and Boeing.

There are two key challenges with the flying wing design. One is how to control such a plane at low speeds. NASA previously addressed this by building a six-meter-wide remote-controlled test aircraft (the X-48B) to demonstrate ways to control hybrid wings. Based on those tests and wind tunnel tests, NASA built a larger remote-controlled aircraft that started test flights last year.

The second challenge is building a full-scale version of the aircraft with pressurized cabins that is structurally sound. One reason tubular airplanes have persisted is that it’s relatively easy to build a tube that can withstand the forces acting on it from the outside during flight while maintaining cabin pressure. The hybrid wing design involves a flatter, box-like fuselage that blends with the wings. The flatter structure, which includes some near-right angles, is much more difficult to build in a way that’s strong enough and light enough to be practical.

NASA’s manufacturing process starts with preformed carbon composite rods. The rods are covered with carbon fiber fabric and stitched into place. Fabric is then stitched over foam strips to create cross members. The fabric is impregnated with an epoxy to create a rigid composite structure.

Sections of a fuselage built with the technique were tested and shown to withstand up to the forces that would be applied to a finished aircraft. Tests also showed that when enough pressure was applied to cause the parts to fail, the stitching used to make the structure stopped cracks from spreading—a key to avoiding catastrophic failure in flight.

The researchers are now building a 30-foot-wide, two-level pressurized structure that will be used in an attempt to validate the manufacturing approach. That structure is scheduled to be finished by 2015.

To achieve a 50 percent reduction in fuel consumption, the hybrid wing design will need to incorporate an advanced engine design. Collier says ultra-high bypass engines are a good match. In an ultra-high bypass design, the front fan on the engine is far larger than the core of the engine, where air is compressed and combustion takes place. Such large fans can be difficult to mount under the wing, as engines are mounted in most conventional airliners. The hybrid wing design involves mounting the engines on top of the plane, rather than under the wings (The top-mount design also cuts noise levels.)

NASA has helped Pratt & Whitney develop prototype ultra-high bypass engines, which are slated to go into commercial use for the first time next year, starting on Bombardier’s C-Series aircraft. NASA is further optimizing the engines to take advantage of the top-mount design in the hybrid wing airplane.


Skylon spaceplane gets ESA approval

by Emma Woollacott

After nearly thirty years on the drawing board, a revolutionary British spaceplane has received approval for the next stage of development.

The Skylon vehicle would be able to take off from a runway and reach orbit in a single stage. The idea was derived from the Hotol spacecraft design from British Aerospace and Rolls Royce in the 1980s, which was later abandoned because of technical problems.

It would be capable of delivering payloads of up to 15 tonnes into low Earth orbit – around 200 miles – at about 1/50th of the cost of traditional expendable launch vehicles, such as rockets, says the UK Space Agency.

Its Sabre engines use liquid hydrogen combined with oxygen from the air at altitudes up to 26km and speeds of up to Mach 5, before switching over to on-board liquid oxygen for the final stage of ascent.

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U.S. Army Starts Process to Design Replacement Helicopters for Aging Fleet

The sad thing is they had a replacement, the AH-66 and killed it off. Future Army helicopter designs could look like the X2 (Source: Sikorsky)

By Shane McGlaun

Will the new helicopter program go the way of the Comanche?

Lots of focus is put on the “elderly nature” of certain types of aircraft in the various fleets in branches of the U.S. armed forces. The Air Force has been working for years to get a replacement for the aging fleet of tanker aircraft and is hard at work on the F-35 program despite continued setbacks.

While the Air Force is getting its replacement aircraft, some other branches of the armed forces like the Army are not as well funded and are not seeing their fleets of aging aircraft being replaced with new designs. Specifically the fleet of helicopters in the Army””s fleet need to be addressed, and replacements need to be designed according to the industry. 

Aviation Week reports that while the Army is buying new rotorcraft such as the Apache and the Blackhawk helicopters, those designs are from the 1970””s. Modern conflicts in Afghanistan and other countries have highlighted the shortcomings of these aircraft have highlighted the need for modern replacements. The Army has tried to replace its Apache attack helicopter previously with the Comanche, but the project was cancelled.

The Army is now working with other branches of the U.S. military to develop a Joint Multi-Role (JMR) technology demonstrator aircraft modeled on the Joint Advanced Strike Technology program that ultimately led to the design and development of the F-35. The industry is excited by the proposal of a new rotorcraft design, but worries that the program may be underfunded as other programs to replace aging helicopters have been. The aviation industry has formed a consortium called the Vertical Lift Consortium that brings together large and small companies with academia to help jointly design future rotorcraft.

Ned Chase from Amrdec said, “We’re funded to build two clean-sheet aircraft that may or may not be the same configuration.”

The Army is counting on its own funding for the program and is counting on other research agencies like DARPA and NASA bringing funding to the program as well. Amrdec director of aviation Jim Snider said, “We plan to build two demonstrators, but we’d like to have enough money to build three.”

Ultimately, the aircraft design that the JMR comes up with would have to be scalable in size and performance to replace all of the Army helicopters that serve various mission roles like scouting, attack, utility, and cargo and be appropriate for other branches of the military that use helicopters as well. The rotorcraft designs would have to scale as small as the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior armed scout and as large as a replacement for the CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Performance targets for the program include a speed of at least 170 knots and an unrefueled operational radius of 294 miles at 6,000 feet in 95F hot-and-high conditions. The aircraft would need to be able to loiter on station for 30 minutes in cargo and utility configurations and up to 120 minutes in attack and reconnaissance roles.

So far, initial studies have been finished and second phase configurations analysis has started. The solicitation of industry trade studies were to begin in fiscal 2011, but were delayed. The plan calls for configuration studies in 2011 to 2013 with a flight demonstrator around 2020 followed by a 5-year development plan leading to the new helicopter entering service in 2026.

Skylifter: heavy duty flying saucer re-thinks lighter than air transport

The Skylifter airship concept – click image to go to the gallery of pictures

By Ben Coxworth

For decades, fans of airships have been hoping for a large-scale revival of the majestic floating aircraft. Every few years, lighter than air flying concepts come along to raise those hopes, such as Northrop Grumman’s Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, Skyhook’s JHL-40, and DARPA’s Walrus, which led to the current Aeroscraft ML866 project. Now there”s another unique contender to the throw into the mix – Australia’s Skylifter. If it ever makes it to the skies, however, it’s sure to be the source of some bogus UFO sightings.


Skylifter is a dirigible gas balloon system which, as its name implies, is intended for transporting cargo too heavy, bulky or fragile for conventional aircraft – its carrying capacity is rated at 150 tonnes (165 US tons). While the company’s immediate plans are for traditional payloads, down the road it would be interested in developing prefabricated buildings that Skylifter could drop into hard-to-reach locations, or luxury pod units that would take up to 80 passengers at a time on air cruises.


The aircraft would consist of three main sections. Floating at the top would be the symmetrical discus aerostat, which is a fancy way of saying “saucer-shaped balloon.” It would be permanently filled with lighter-than-air gas. Hanging on suspension lines below it would be the cylindrical control pod, with the two-pilot flight deck mounted on the bottom. Cargo would hang from cables below that.

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Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise achieves first free flight milestone

VSS Enterprise on its milestone first free flight (Image: Mark Greenberg) – click image for more pictures

By Darren Quick

Last July Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2), the VSS Enterprise, made its first manned flight. For the duration of that flight, the spacecraft remained attached to its jet-powered carrier aircraft. But over the weekend VSS Enterprise left the protective grip of its mothership, VMS Eve, to successfully achieve its first manned free flight. Released from VMS Eve at an altitude of 45,000 ft (13,700 meters), VSS Enterprise glided for 11 minutes before landing at Mojave Air and Spaceport, successfully completing the two main goals of the flight.

Other objectives of the flight, which was piloted by Pete Siebold, assisted by Mike Alsbury as co-pilot, included; initial evaluation of handling and stall characteristics; qualitative evaluation of stability and control of SS2 against predictions from design and simulation work; verification of performance by evaluating the lift-to-drag ratio of the spaceship during glide flight; practice a landing approach at altitude and finally descend and land. All these objectives were also met.

After the flight, Siebold said, “The VSS Enterprise was a real joy to fly, especially when one considers the fact that the vehicle has been designed not only to be a Mach 3.5 spaceship capable of going into space but also one of the worlds highest altitude gliders.”

The Virgin Galactic team wasn’t taking any shortcuts in the preparations for the milestone flight. VMS Eve flew 40 times including four captive carry flights where the mothership and spaceship were attached for the duration. When the most recent solo flight of VMS Eve on October 5th demonstrated that all the systems required for the free flight by the VSS Enterprise were functioning correctly without any safety issues the team was ready for the next step of a free flight.

Virgin founder, Sir Richard Branson, was present at the milestone flight, saying, “This was one of the most exciting days in the whole history of Virgin. For the first time since we seriously began the project in 2004, I watched the world’s first manned commercial spaceship landing on the runway at Mojave Air and Space Port and it was a great moment. Now, the sky is no longer the limit and we will begin the process of pushing beyond to the final frontier of space itself over the next year.”

Space looks like being the hot tourist destination in the next few years, with companies like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures looking to give the paying public a ride into space and other companies like Galactic Suit Design and Orbital Technologies looking to give them a place to stay. However, such endeavors require a lot of money so there”s still a question of if and when such dreams will become a reality. But Virgin Galactic is certainly looking like the team most likely saying it is now well on the way to becoming the world’s first commercial space line having already accrued 370 customer deposits totaling US$50 million.

Virgin Galactic’s future commercial operations will be based at Spaceport America in New Mexico where final preparations are taking place for a finished runway inauguration ceremony on Friday 22nd of October 2010.

Virgin Galactic has released footage follow link for video.

DEMON UAV achieves historic first ''flapless flight''

Click image for more pictures – The DEMON UAV, that achieved flapless flight in Cumbria

An unmanned aerial vehicle named DEMON made history last month when it demonstrated “flapless flight” at an airfield in Cumbria, England. The demonstrator aircraft’s ailerons/elevators were locked off, allowing it to maneuver using nothing but a series of forced-air jets along the trailing edges of its wings. In the future, such technology could be applied to military or commercial aircraft.

DEMON was developed by aerospace company BAE Systems, Cranfield University, and nine other UK universities. It is part of BAE’s £6.2 million (US$9.85 million) FLAVIIR (Flapless Air Vehicle Integrated Industrial Research) program, and took five years to complete.

Its “fluidic flight control” system consists of an auxiliary power unit that supplies compressed air to a series of circulation control devices, located in the wings. These release the compressed air from slots along the top and bottom trailing edges of both wings, creating a “blade of air” immediately behind them. Using flight control algorithms to vary which slots the air comes out of (top or bottom, left or right), the roll direction of the plane can be determined.

“What the FLAVIIR Team have achieved in such a short time is nothing short of remarkable,” said BAE’s Richard Williams. “I was in Cumbria to watch DEMON fly and I feel sure I have witnessed a significant moment in aviation history.”

Flapless aircraft would have several advantages over traditional planes, in that they would have fewer moving parts, require less maintenance and present a stealthier profile.

Rocket Racers Roar Over Tulsa

By Jason Paur

After nearly five years of waiting, spectators have finally been given a taste of the Rocket Racing League. At an airshow in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two of the racers took to the skies with long flames and loud bursts of rocket power. The pilots demonstrated the impressive capabilities of a lightweight composite airplane paired with a liquid-oxygen rocket motor.

Founded by X-Prize guru Peter Diamandis in 2005, the Rocket Racing League was initially planning on holding a series of races back in 2008. After hitting some of the same financial turbulence felt around the world, Diamandis is hoping to get back to a schedule for races some time next year.

A single rocket racer flew in front of the aviation crazed crowd at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2008 with its short bursts of rocket power allowing the pilot to climb and maneuver unlike a traditional airplane. As one of the test pilots explains in the video after the jump, it’s full throttle or nothing at all, giving pilots a boost of power that would make Michael Knight envious.

In addition to the first flight of two rocket racers together, showing off the impressive power-to-weight ratio when you have a real rocket booster, the event in Tulsa also included demonstration of how the race will look to spectators on the ground. Using a twin-engine Cessna equipped with the same technology that will be used by the racers, pilots flew through an example of a computer-generated course and spectators were able to “see” the course on giant television screens on the ground (or at home).

A screen capture from a demonstration of the raceway in the skyA screen capture from a demonstration of the raceway in the sky

Though some have called it NASCAR in the sky, the rocket racers will actually race against the clock. The computer-generated course will be shown on a heads-up display allowing the pilot to see the course from the cockpit, a view that is shown in the video as a series of boxes creating a track to follow. The concept is similar to the highway in the sky that has been developed as a navigation aid to normal, non-rocket-flying pilots. It’s a lot like a videogame where a pilot must fly through a course on a screen, but in this case with liquid oxygen rocket that can be heard for miles.

The videogame connection will be taken even a step further according to race organizers. Viewers at home will be able to fly a computer based rocket racer head-to-head with the real-life pilots, allowing spectators to virtually compete in the Rocket Racing League from the comfort of their couch.

Artist example of the start of a Rocket Racing League courseArtist rendition of the start of a Rocket Racing League course

The real rocket racers are derived from an airplane developed by kit-plane manufacturer Velocity Aircraft. The four-place airplane features a canard design derived from a plane originally designed and built by legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. In the future, race organizers expect purpose-built rocket racers to be built as the sport develops.

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