Aircraft

NASA's Blended Wing prototype reconfigured for extra hush

NASA's Blended Wing prototype ...
In flight: NASA's X48-C Blended Wing Body prototype (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
In flight: NASA's X48-C Blended Wing Body prototype (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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In flight: NASA's X48-C Blended Wing Body prototype (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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In flight: NASA's X48-C Blended Wing Body prototype (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
NASA's X48-C on the ground (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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NASA's X48-C on the ground (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
Wingtips have been moved to the tail section for the X48-C (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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Wingtips have been moved to the tail section for the X48-C (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
The first test flights of the X48-C took place in August of 2012 (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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The first test flights of the X48-C took place in August of 2012 (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
The previous triple-engined X48-B (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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The previous triple-engined X48-B (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)
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It's easy to forget that, between roving Mars and maintaining a permanent manned space presence, NASA also takes a keen interest in conventional flight. Developed in conjunction with Boeing, NASA's unmanned X-48C is the latest iteration in its six-year X-48 program to develop an efficient Blended Wing Body aircraft. So perhaps we should modify that prior statement: NASA also takes a keen interest in unconventional conventional flight.

Gizmag has followed the X-48 program with interest over the years, but to recap, the X-48 is a Blended Wing Body aircraft, which is something of a halfway house between a flying wing and a conventional airplane (i.e. one with a distinct fuselage and wings). Unlike a flying wing, a Blended Wing Body aircraft has a fuselage, though its squashed form helps to generate lift. The wings, predominantly for stability, do not house crew or cargo.

It's thought that the Blended Wing form offers increased fuel efficiency and reduced noise compared to conventional aircraft. Absent from more recent rhetoric are the potential military applications of such an aircraft, which have previously prompted interest from the US Air Force Research Laboratory.

The third incarnation in the program, the X-48C builds on the foundations laid by the successful X-48B configuration, which made 92 flights between 2007 and 2010. The design changes have been focused on reducing the noise of the aircraft at ground level, a development that would be of clear benefit to communities under flight paths should Blended Wing Body aircraft one day see commercial use.

The most obvious change is the reduction of the X-48B's three engines (generating 50 pounds/222 newtons of thrust each) to two heftier engines (each capable of generating 89 pounds/396 newtons of thrust). A little more subtle is the relocation of the wingtips from the main wings to the newly-created tail section and aft deck, which protrudes about 2 feet (60 cm) from the back of the plane.

The X48-C is about the same size as its predecessor, with a wingspan of a little over 20 feet (6 meters) and a weight of 500 pounds (227 kg). Both the X-48B and X-48C are 8.5-percent scale prototypes of a 40-foot wingspan aircraft that could yet come. Its estimated top speed is 140 mph (225 km/h), and its ceiling is 10,000 feet.

The X48-C, built by Cranfield Aerospace in the UK, first took to the skies in August of last year. It flew for the eighth time in November, more notable because it the hundredth flight of the X48 program as a whole. It is expect to fly another 20 times before its stage of the program concludes.

Source: NASA (August, November)

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15 comments
James Barbour
Why is NASA developing stealth aircraft? Leave that to DARPA. Also, why don't they move all reflective surfaces (bomb bays, landing gear, intake, exhaust and sensors to the bottom of the UAV. This would make the top perfectly smooth. The UAV could then launch, attain cruising altitude the flip upside down to continue the mission in total stealth. Upon reaching the target, bomb bay doors open on the top of the UAV, it rolls, releases the weapon, then continues the roll to disappear again. Simple, really.
BigGoofyGuy
I think that is really cool. I think it is the future for airlines. It would be neat to see a smaller version for non-airline uses. :)
DemonDuck
Good for freight and private business class aircraft -- bad for large commercial passenger aircraft. Can you imagine spending 5-12 hours shrouded in a metal box bouncing around the sky with no windows? BARF -- a lot....
John Laity
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was a U.S. federal agency founded on March 3, 1915. On October 1, 1958, the agency was dissolved, and its assets and personnel transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I only add this as your story suggests a "Keen Interest in conventional flight", when in fact avionics is a core service that NASA oversee for all. If you design a wing, propeller, turbine or rotor blade then you are likely to use NACA / NASA data and profiles. Sorry to pick you up on this, but NASA provide free research and data that keeps us all in the air. They are Top Guys ;0)
Jeff Shartzer
I believe the reduced engine noise level and build costs based on not having a wing box frame to fuselage joint would create much less drag. Think of it as a move toward a uni-body - combine the use of composites you have a lighter stronger more efficient platform. You can place the engines above the wing, as they have done and optimize their efficiency. We need to look at reducing fuel costs and this is a good start,
Fritz Menzel
Interesting how much this looks like a stingray. Makes you wonder if designers have gained advantage by perceiving the atmosphere (at certain speeds) as a liquid and, if so, whether faster craft could end up looking like even more exotic marine life such as the maneuverable & speedy (yet counterintuitive) squid.
Scott in California
Since the aircraft is very quiet, they should go to the next logical step: short-hop (200-600 miles) airliners that are powered by electric motors (propellors) via a glorified, 2000 ft "extension cord". An elevated trackway would carry a "shoe" which would be pulled along in the trackway by the aircraft, making an electrical connection to mains power on the ground. With a predetermined flightpath, hijackers are out of luck. And, no need for a pilot onboard. Drone-style controls. Perhaps top speed would be 250 mph, but overall travel time would be much faster than any "bullet train" or current airline travel (with security, remote airport locations, etc). Onboard backup batteries would provide the ability to make an emergency landing within four-minutes of a "no power" alarm. Electric motors= very low maintenance costs, no refueling delays, very low capital costs per aircraft.
Stephen N Russell
To replace B2 bomber?
Slowburn
It is not a stealth design just aerodynamically clean.
Slowburn
re; Scott in California Consider the weight and drag of the cables, the bird and bats that would be killed, and how often the cables would break and kill someone on the ground.