NASA's 230kg Model Plane Tests The Next Generation Of Aircraft Design

While the design has yet to catch on with civilian air travellers (focus groups hate amphitheater-style seating), the Blended Wing Body aircraft holds great promise for military operations. To better study this innovative design without sinking untold extra millions into R&D, NASA built the next best thing -- a 1:8.5 scale RC demonstrator.

The X-48B isn't a run-of-the-mill RC plane, mind you. Designed by Boeing Phantom Works in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the X-48 has a 6m wingspan that accurately mimics the structural, aerodynamic and operational features of the Blended Wing Body concept. A trio of JetCat P200 turbojet engines propel the 230kg model up to 220km/h with a 3000m operational ceiling and a 40-minute flight duration.

The Blended Wind Body design -- understandably unpopular with commercial carriers -- does have several advantages over conventional aircraft, especially as a multi-role, long-range, high-capacity military transport. Flattening the body of the aircraft to act as part of the wing generates less drag, which translates into a longer operational range, better fuel economy, less noise, a larger payload capacity, and lower manufacturing and maintenance costs.

The X-48 Concept was first concocted in the late 1990s by engineers at McDonnell Douglas. After McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing, the firm worked with the NASA Langley Research Center to create a precursor to the X-48 program, a 5m wide propeller-driven drone that flew briefly in 1997. However, by the time the X-48A, a 11m BWB model got off the ground in 2004, Boeing had effectively cancelled the project.

Typically, when R&D projects like this are cancelled, they stay cancelled. However, by 2007, Boeing was back hard at work on the X-48B -- a smaller, more robust iteration of the series design. Two such 48Bs were built in the UK by Cranfield Aerospace. They first flew in July of that year at the NASA Dryden testing facility, reaching 2286 metres during the 30-minute flight. "Earlier wind-tunnel testing and the upcoming flight testing are focused on learning more about the BWB's low-speed flight-control characteristics, especially during takeoffs and landings," Norman Princen, Boeing's chief engineer for the project, said. "Knowing how accurately our models predict these characteristics is an important step in the further development of this concept." Ninety-two test flights and nearly two years later, Boeing and NASA concluded the X-48B's initial testing in March of 2010.

Since then, Boeing has been working to further upgrade the X-48's capabilities. Though built from an X-48B chassis, the new X-48C is even more quiet than its predecessor thanks to a Hybrid Wing Body (HWB) aircraft design. Other changes include relocating the upturned winglets, from out the wingtips in towards the engines, to increase stability. Also, Boeing replaced the trio of 230kg thrust engines with a pair of smaller 40kg thrusters. The model C made its successful maiden voyage this past Tuesday above Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert. [Defense Systems - Wikipedia - NASA - Boeing]

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    Thats Thoresome!

    I don't understand why commercial airlines think this would be repellent to consumers. I'm ambivalent about amphitheatre seating but modern plane seating is tooled to the economics of space which is really uncomfortable. The only joy about having the jerk wad in front of me reclining their fat head into my 40cm cube of free space is when the terrible food gives me enough gas to make their immediate air space uncomfortably warm, wet and smelly. If the airline could save money on fuel (widely quoted as the biggest pricing pressure on airlines) by adopting this design and maybe give me and my farts an extra 40cm cube to spread out in, that would be a glorious day indeed!

      I agree, I find it extremely odd that there's supposedly little interest.

      When I read things like:
      "Flattening the body of the aircraft... translates into a longer operational range, better fuel economy, less noise, a larger payload capacity, and lower manufacturing and maintenance costs"
      i see qualities that sound EXACTLY like the things currently sought by airlines to lower their costs.

      I would suggest that with the way things are in commerical aviation at the moment, bottom line is the only thing that matters. If an aircraft like this can help as much as is claimed, then surely it should be of great interest to commercial carriers.

    Best job in the world!

    Those pictures are all of the B model. The new C model looks siginifcantly different:

    What is this...a plane for ants? It will need to be at least 3 times bigger

    It looks like Mr. Ray from finding Nemo

    Tell people they'll get extra leg room... Boom! Public Sold!

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