Imagine circumnavigating the world in just a few hours or flying on the wing of a plane. Cutting-edge aircraft designs and prototypes may soon make these scenarios a reality.
The airplane has come a long way since the Wright brothers first took off in their spruce wood biplane. Over a century of advancements in aircraft design and capability have transformed aviation, and today, high-tech concepts and new engineering features are paving the way for even more extraordinary innovations. Here we look at radical new ideas likely to shape the future of aircraft for years to come, and some that are already affecting how we fly.
In late 2010, NASA awarded contracts to three companies to study advanced concept designs for aircraft that would potentially take flight in 2025. Although each company is currently developing its own version of a futuristic vehicle, the concepts must adhere to similar requirements: fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound; cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles; and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload composed of passengers or cargo.
One of the proposed designs, from Boeing, is a plane that features a combination of fuselage and wings. This hybrid-wing concept has been in development for nearly two decades and is intended to generate greater lift force for the aircraft. However, practical implementation will likely require new advances in low-speed control techniques, according to Flightglobal. Although it is a passenger jet, the aircraft’s unique design resembles that of a stealth fighter.
A similar NASA research initiative — aimed at developing aircraft for 2030 — focuses on sustainability issues, with goals such as a 71-decibel reduction below current noise standards, a 75 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions and a 70 percent reduction in fuel burn performance.
“Just beneath the skin of these concepts lie breakthrough airframe and propulsion technologies designed to help the commercial aircraft of tomorrow fly significantly quieter, cleaner, and more fuel-efficiently, with more passenger comfort, and to more of America’s airports,” NASA explained in an announcement of the program. “You may see ultramodern shape memory alloys, ceramic or fiber composites, carbon nanotube or fiber optic cabling, self-healing skin, hybrid electric engines, folding wings, double fuselages and virtual reality windows.”
Submitted proposals have also incorporated the principle of combining multiple components together. For example, a design from MIT features the “double bubble” configuration, which fuses two aircraft bodies lengthwise and has three turbofan jet engines mounted on the tail. It relies on composite materials to provide a lower weight and generates lower air flow through the core of the engine and more air flow through the duct surrounding the core than in conventional engines.
NASA isn’t the only organization pioneering futuristic aircraft designs. European aeronautics and defense firm EADS, the manufacturer of Airbus, is working on a new hypersonic jet capable of flying from Paris to Tokyo in just two and a half hours, the Financial Times reports. Known as the zero emission high-speed transport, or “ZEHST,” the plane would take off from a standard runway before rocket boosters lift it up to nearly 20 miles in the atmosphere, where it would travel beyond Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound.
“An overarching design criterion of ZEHST is that passengers should have a normal, comfortable in-flight experience without requiring any special equipment or preparation,” EADS’ Up Magazine explains. “Alongside this approach, the research topics that ZEHST’s development will cover include evaluating hydrogen as a main fuel, finding lightweight materials capable of resisting high stress levels and temperatures, mastering the complex transitions between the aircraft’s propulsion modes and determining potential means for sonic boom reduction.”
“While the plane is still at concept stage and will require huge funding to get it off the ground, EADS says demonstration flights could be happening as early as 2020,” aviation blog Terminal U notes. “Travelling at hypersonic speeds on ‘ZEHST’ would make long-haul getaways possible in a weekend, with flights from London to the east coast of America possible in an hour, or to Tokyo in two hours.”
Late last year, the CAFÉ Foundation, a non-profit group supporting research in personal aircraft, awarded a $1.35 million prize to Pipistrel USA for developing an electric airplane capable of flying more than 200 hundred miles an hour while using less than half a gallon of gasoline per passenger.
Known as the Taurus G4, the airplane has an innovative design featuring cockpits mounted on each wing instead of the nose. Its twin-fuselage arrangement can seat four people, and it relies on a 145-kilowatt brushless electric motor to turn a two-bladed propeller mounted between the fuselages. Its wingspan is roughly 75 feet.
“The Taurus specifically managed an equivalent fuel efficiency of 403 passenger miles per gallon (0.58L/100km) at a speed of 107 miles per hour (172 km/h) – according to Pipistrel team leader Jack Langelaan, that is twice as fast and efficient as a fully-occupied Toyota Prius,” Gizmag notes.
|A First Look at Flight in 2025|
|by NASA, Jan. 13, 2011|
|Beauty of Future Airplanes is More than Skin Deep|
|by NASA, May 17, 2010|
|Fly the Eco-Friendly Skies|
|by MIT, May 17, 2010|
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|Futuristic Zehst Primed for 2050 Take-Off|
|by Financial Times, June 19, 2010|
|by EADS, November 2011|
|London to Sydney in 3.5 Hours: Hypersonic Plane Could Be a Reality by 2050|
|by Terminal U, June 20, 2011|
|Pipistrel Takes US$1.35 Million First Prize in NASA Green Flight Challenge|
|by Gizmag, Oct. 5, 2011|
|Click for less|