Aircraft

World's first "flap-free" aircraft maneuvered by blown air takes flight

World's first "flap-free" airc...
The Magma UAV uses puffs of air instead of moving control surfaces
The Magma UAV uses puffs of air instead of moving control surfaces
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The Magma UAV uses puffs of air instead of moving control surfaces
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The Magma UAV uses puffs of air instead of moving control surfaces
Features of the Magma technology
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Features of the Magma technology

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.

Features of the Magma technology
Features of the Magma technology

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

9 comments
SimonClarke
There are a few things that I would like to say about this idea. I originally came across it on a BAE website and I think a lot of the information in this article came from there and I feel that I need to correct it. Flight control systems are neither complex nor heavy. In essence two cables and a pulley are all that is required to make a system that works. They are also not inefficient. Modern flight control systems have a low drag count. The Ailerons are the primary flight control system, not the flaps as stated in both articles. Actually blown flaps were used on the Blackburn Buccaneer aircraft which was used by the Royal Navy then by the RAF. There were a couple of problems with these that I address in a moment. Large passenger aircraft like the A380 have hydraulically actuated Flying control units. In fact the A380 uses a fly by wire system up to the PFCU and then hydraulic actuation to move the control surface. One advantage of this system is that all control surfaces are independently operated so that if any part of the system fails the remaining surfaces can control the aircraft to a safe landing. This BAE blown control surface aircraft has several limitations. Firstly, if the engine stops, there is no control over the aircraft. A Boeing 747 will glide safely over a hundred miles from 30,000 if all the engines stopped. The next problem is the amount of air that you have to draw from the engine to produce this airflow. We all know that that the amount of drag increases exponentially as we go faster, especially towards the speed of sound. This would require a lot larger engine than would normally be used therefore adding in weight that was lost by removing the flight control system. Another drawback of having this larger engine with its high power requirements is the additional use of fuel that would be required again adds into the weight that has been removed, there could also be a wing size increase to accommodate the additional volume. To create this high pressure, high speed air you would need to tap the air from well into the engine which would be hot. You now have a high pressure, high speed, hot air system that needs to run through the aircraft with all sorts of thermal issues as well as protection should the ducting breakdown or get damaged. Having pointed out all of those issues I must state that do love innovation. Would it be suitable for UAV's? Probably yes, but I do not think it has a place in either military or commercial aircraft. If BAE really wants to develop something that Is simpler and more efficient I suggest that they look at Sir Frank Whittles moving wing aircraft. These wings moved independently or together to control the speed of flight, turning and pitch. If someone got this working I would be seriously impressed.
notarichman
i agree with the previous poster, except that there could be a temporary pressure tank to store air that could be used to steer the plane when engine power is lost. that means more weight by the way.
toyhouse
Some folks assume that the control air-source will always be supplied from one place - propulsion. Bleed-air etc. Remember, there's an entirely new category of aircraft being developed, electric and hybrid/electric. For some aircraft, the air-source may come from a separate electrically driven unit or possibly multiple tiny sources located near the exit ports. That would integrate nicely with fly-by-wire. How much air is really needed? Don't know. The main point here is that this has the potential to add a new way of controlling an aircraft going into the next century. As for current control complexity, it's all over the map just like the kind aircraft in the sky. Some complex, others simple. Some reliable, some, not as much. We've zero experience touching fly-by-wire hardware have worked on experimental's. Flapless control may suit certain flight profiles perfectly. What are they? Don't know. I'll be watching this one.
Fletcher
So the design shown still didn't get rid of the rudder and presumably the flaps. To pile on to prior comments, this design transfers air from the engine to be routed to the point of exit on the wing rather than just deflect the air at the wing. Stupid idea entirely for this type of aircraft. It is however, a Great idea for aircraft using the Coandă effect and routing air for thrust as well as control of the aircraft but such aircraft don't exist, were never made and tested in the 50's or scene today anywhere. Makes no sense at all to make such a vehicle and should be dismissed entirely! Just forget about it!.
Jinpa
The photos lack any scale reference, so no way to tell if the aircraft if is a miniature, whether it is manned, or other size references. Slabs and flaps act to shorten runway needs for takeoff and landing, which no nozzle system could replace. This seems like it is meant for small, specialized aircraft, not for general or commercial aviation.
jeffco67
I liked that #1 post here was well-thought. I would imagine that in a more technical article they might have addressed some of the issues, usually happens when I come up with a lot of ways to be suspicious of something new. Hot bleed air from the compressor stage doesn't scare me much since they already use it in the air conditioning packs as a source of exchange cooling after being allowed to expand. Some latent heat in such a control system might be desirable to scare ice away from control sources. I'm sure they've got a plan to integrate into the existing exchanger systems to provide that function. Bleed air is fairly limitless, at least at the volumes something like this would require... not sure it would necessarily warrant more powerful engines. I get skeptical when, as you mentioned, a fault in one critical system causes a failure in another critical system...newer aircraft with "fueldraulics" systems, using high pressure fuel for hydraulic actuation? Yeah on a basic level of non-duplication of fuel storage and pump requirements, it does open the door to a lot of "flightmare" scenarios I can come up with easily?
JimFox
Naysayers have, as usual FAR more technical expertise than BAe, Boeing & all other actual manufacturers. I am entirely sceptical of these armchair experts...
PB
The delta wing design is inherently unstable. The fatal crash of the last flying delta wing prototype at Chino airport in California this past week is evidence. Being a twin engine aircraft if it lost an engine it is impossible to steer the aircraft without a vertical stabilizer. The drag aspect of introducing an air blast to steer the aircraft is puzzling. It's a great idea, but has drawbacks, so more work is needed.
Norman Deaville
I see from the displays at RAF Cosford that Barnes Wallis had designed an alternative long range bomber aircraft called the Swallow which didn't require flaps and ailerons etc, the government chose the TSR 2 option and BAE squandered Barnes Wallis's talents,