BAE Systems has made a bit of aviation history by maneuvering the first aircraft in flight using supersonically blown air instead of ailerons or other control surfaces. Taking to the skies over Llanbedr Airfield in Gwynedd, northwest Wales, the wing-shaped Magma UAV makes use of two new "flap-free" technologies that the company says could one day revolutionize aircraft design.

Today, conventional aircraft rely on a complex array of flaps, ailerons, elevators, rudders, and other control surfaces in order to fly in anything other than a straight line. Despite over a century of development, it's a very crude system that is inefficient and depends on complex, expensive, heavy mechanical parts in order to work.

Developed by BAE in collaboration with the University of Manchester and the British government, Magma replaces control surfaces with a simpler "blown air" technology that controls the flow of air over the wings with supersonic puffs of air from the inside.

At present, Magma is testing two variations of "flap-free" technology. The first is called Wing Circulation Control. In this, air from the aircraft engine is bled off and blown supersonically through narrow slots around a specially shaped wing trailing edge to do the same job as the aileron. The second is Fluidic Thrust Vectoring. This involves deflecting the engine's jet exhaust by blowing air inside the nozzle to change the aircraft's pitch.

According to BAE, the Magma technology has the potential to improve both the control and the performance of aircraft that would be lighter, cheaper, and more reliable. In addition, by removing the gaps and edges of conventional control surfaces, the aircraft become stealthier by making them less radar reflective.

"We are excited to have been part of a long-standing effort to change the way in which aircraft can be controlled, going all the way back to the invention of wing warping by the Wright brothers," says Bill Crowther, senior academic and leader of the Magma project at The University of Manchester. "It's been a great project for students to be part of, highlighting that real innovation in engineering is more about finding practical solutions to many hundreds of small technical challenges than having single moments of inspiration.

"The partnership with BAE Systems has allowed us the freedom as a university to focus on research adventure, with BAE Systems providing the pathway to industrial application. We made our first fluidic thrust vectoring nozzle from glued together bits of plastic and tested it on a hair drier fan nearly 20 years ago. Today BAE Systems is 3D printing our components out of titanium and we are flight testing them on the back of a jet engine in an aircraft designed and built by the project team. It doesn't get much better than that."

Source: BAE Systems

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