Aircraft

Radical bi-directional flying wing design gets NASA funding

Radical bi-directional flying ...
The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
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The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
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The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in low-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
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The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in low-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
The proposed supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft (Image: NASA)
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The proposed supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft (Image: NASA)
The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed (left) and low-speed configurations (Image: NASA)
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The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed (left) and low-speed configurations (Image: NASA)
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A team that has created a supersonic jet design resembling a flying shuriken has been awarded a US$100, 000 grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program to continue development of the aircraft. Aside from looking suitably futuristic, the concept plane’s four-pointed star design serves a practical purpose. By rotating in mid air, the plane can transition between broad-wing subsonic and shorter wingspan supersonic configurations.

Aircraft design is usually a compromise between subsonic and supersonic performance. At low speeds, broad wings provide more lift and help minimize takeoff distance, while swept back wings with a smaller profile enhance performance at high speeds. Variable-sweep wing (or swing wing) aircraft, such as the F-14 Tomcat and B-1 Lancer, get around this with wings that are spread broadly at takeoff and low speeds and can be swept back while in flight for improved performance at high speeds.

The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft tackles the problem in a different way. It would take off in one orientation with broader wings, before rotating 90 degrees in flight to transition to high-speed mode with a shorter wing span.

The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed (left) and low-speed configurations (Image: NASA)
The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in high-speed (left) and low-speed configurations (Image: NASA)

“No matter how fast a supersonic plane can fly, it needs to take off and land at very low speed, which severely hurts the high-speed supersonic performance for a conventional airplane,” said Ge-Chen Zha, a professor in the University of Miami’s College of Engineering and principal investigator of the project. “The SBiDir-FW removes this performance conflict by rotating the airplane to fly in two different directions at subsonic and supersonic. Such rotation enables the SBiDir-FW to achieve superior performance at both supersonic and subsonic speeds.”

While conventional commercial aircraft consist of a tube-shaped fuselage attached to two wings that responsible for generating lift, as a flying wing, the entire surface of the SBiDir-FW is used to generate lift. Passengers and cargo would be contained within the wide span, thick, rounded airfoil used at low speeds, while the high-speed wing would have a shorter span and a thin-sharp-edged airfoil to reduce drag at supersonic speed.

The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in low-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)
The supersonic bi-directional flying wing (SBiDir-FW) aircraft in low-speed configuration (Image: University of Miami)

The aircraft would rotate into supersonic configuration by folding winglets attached to the end of the wings in subsonic configuration. Folding them up again would see the aircraft rotate back again to subsonic orientation once again. The engine pod on the back of the aircraft would also be rotated when switching modes.

Zha hopes his SBiDir-FW will produce no sonic boom, have low supersonic wave drag, and low fuel consumption. A preliminary computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulation for a SBiDir-FW business jet indicates that at speeds of Mach 1.6 to 2.0, there is no sonic boom.

“I am hoping to develop an environmentally friendly and economically viable airplane for supersonic civil transport in the next 20 to 30 years,” said Zha. “Imagine flying from New York to Tokyo in four hours instead of 15 hours.”

The $100,000 NIAC grant is intended to help the research team refine the aircraft design using CFD, examine the feasibility of the design, and conduct wind tunnel testing to verify the aircraft’s performance at supersonic speeds and its sonic boom signature. If all goes well, the team will be eligible for an addition $500,000 to continue development of the aircraft.

Sources: NASA, University of Miami via Dvice

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35 comments
Jules Tipler
Love the concept, will watch with interest to see how this develops. Great to see the weird and occasionally wacky ideas can still get funding.
Pikeman
I do not see a reason that this could not work but the design can not be modified to add or remove a few rows of seats without redesigning the whole airplane. Boeing saved a lot of money by using the same nose, cockpit, and fuselage components in the 727 and 737 that they designed for the 707. I prefer a tube with a delta wing and a tail like a Mig 21. However if retractable canards like the Tu-144Ds can provide enough elevator control to allow the full use of high-lift devices on the main wings I would gladly forgo the horizontal tail wing assuming it is demonstrated that the plane can land safely without deploying the canards.
Airsoft-World Scotland
A $100,000 grant?? It looks like NASA is feeling the economic crisis too :)
yinfu99
I think it is a neat idea, although true the funding seems low, but times are what they are. I dont understand why it seems they just tacked the engines on top, and not incorporated them into the plane design. They could have developed a flattened dome incorporated in the structure which could rotate to provide thrust in whatever direction they wanted.
MBadgero
I saw this wing configuration 30 years ago. The rotating engines look novel. Hope it flies.
PeetEngineer
That thing is going to have some serious stability problems. But at least now I know how low the bar is to get research grant money from Nasa, maybe I should submit a few of my own designs?
Bob Fately
Like the rotational idea, but how exactly do the engines spin? In the two smaller renderings, they look to be on the port side of the fuselage, but in the larger one (over the water and island) they seem to be more centered.
GizEngineer
Congrats to the University of Miami for managing to coax money out of NASA for an academic exercise. No wonder our aero research effort is is trouble. You can look at the supersonic capabilities all you want. The transition from subsonic to supersonic and back again is dubious and should be looked at first. How'd you like to be flying this thing during the transition--hang onto your drinks etc!! Do you pivot the seats or is everyone flying sideways? How do you land the thing if there's a systems failure, etc, etc, etc.
Gregg Eshelman
It looks like some of the Gamilas ships from Space Battleship Yamato. That's the original anime series from 1974, not the 2010 movie.
PaulW
You can see an animation of the SBIDIR-FW on the U of Miami website. And, if you want to hear more details, then watch 40 minutes of video presentations by Dr Gecheng Zha. http://www6.miami.edu/acfdlab/projects/sbidir.html