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NASA Tests Plane of the Future

NASA's X-48NASA has demonstrated a prototype for what it believes could be the ‘Plane of the Future’ – the X-48C. The British-built aircraft is a redesign of a traditional ‘fixed-wing’ plane shape, which has been used for 50 years. NASA and Boeing say current plane models have reached their limits in terms of fuel efficiency and speed. A scale replica of the X-48C was put through a test flight last week, and it’s the hope of NASA that the aircraft will become the next universally adopted design over the next 20 years.

The plane is a hybrid wing-body that offers more internal volume for cargo and passengers. The triangle-shaped design is similar to that of spy planes and can more efficiently cut through the air. The improved shape will also reduce noise. The wingspan is 21 feet, which is an 8.5% scale model of a subsonic aircraft with a 240-foot wingspan. Such a large plane could be developed over the next 15 to 20 years for potential passenger flights, as well as military applications.

The X-48C model was designed by Boeing and manufactured by UK-based Cranfield Aerospace Ltd. It’s an evolution of the X-48B, which was tested on 92 flights between 2007 and 2010. The main changes included moving the winglet to the top of the fuselage, beside the engines. The aft deck has also been extended. These changes were part of an aim to reduce noise from the engines. Additionally, the number of engines on the plane has been reduced from three to two, and each produce 89 pounds of thrust.

The test model can fly for 35 minutes with a top altitude of 10,000 feet. The test run last week only lasted for nine minutes, but it was long enough for NASA to label it a successful test. The space agency also planned to test the aircraft later in the week. Boeing engineers will work with NASA engineers on the test flights, which are set continue throughout the year.

Boeing chief engineer Normal Princen says fuel efficiency on planes has increased by about 50% since the panes of the late ’50s. However, in order to improve that more, a radical shift has be made in the shape of the aircraft.

Programme manager and Boeing senior technical official Bob Liebeck says that they are working with NASA and are very happy to enter into the next test phase of their work – validating and exploring the aerodynamic efficiencies and characteristics of the Blended Wing Body concept. They proved in earlier test flights of the X-48B that a Blended Wing Body can be controlled as effectively as traditional tube-and-wing planes during takeoffs and landings, as well as at other low-speed parts of the flight routine. He added that they will evaluate the impact of noise shielding concepts with the X-48C.

This revealing follows Airbus showing last year what they believe could be the future of air travel by the middle of the century. Their vision is of a plane with an intelligent wall membrane that allows passengers to see through the cabin, as well as interactive in-flight games.

At the time, engineering executive vice president Charles Champion said that their research showed passengers in 2050 will expect a seamless travel experience and care for the environment. Their concept cabin was designed with that in mind, he added, and shows that journeys can have just as much discovery as destinations.

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