Boeing’s Phantom Works division, along with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, recently tested its new X-48B, a blended wing body (BWB) aircraft. The 500-lb prototype boasts a 21-ft wingspan and features three turbo jet engines, a high-strength, low-weight graphite composite skin. A forward facing camera relays visual information to a remote monitor and console, where a pilot uses conventional instruments to control the aircraft.
The prototype completed preliminary testing in the Lagley Full Scale Tunnel (LFST), operated by Old Dominion University under the supervision of NASA, but took its first test flight at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center in California.
The remotely piloted prototype approached speeds of 120 knots at altitudes of 7,500 ft in its low-speed configuration. According to Tom Koehler, spokesperson for Boeing Phantom Works, the plane would have to be modified in order to test at higher speeds. “Because we were testing this for low speed, it doesn’t retract,” he says. “The landing gear is just on there always in the down position.”
According to Koehler, the objective of this prototype build and test was to determine the capabilities of the BWB design at low speeds. “The goal of the program is to get good flight test data that will align with the good data we already have of the wind tunnel, as well as the computational fluid dynamics studies that have been done on it over the years,” he says.
The 8.5-percent-scale prototype and the remote pilot console were built by Cranfield Aerospace Ltd. based out of Bedford, England. Cranfield built two separate prototypes for testing; the first was used in the wind tunnel and will be used as a back up in future tests, while the second prototype was built for the live testing.
“Right now we think it has a lot of potential for use as a military aircraft, in 15-20 years,” says Koeler, “and it’s not in our forecast at all as a commercial airplane.”
In place of a traditional cylindrical fuselage, the cabin and internal area of the plane blend into the wing span. According to Boeing, this design provides extra lift and less drag than a traditional fuselage and uses less fuel during cruise conditions. This design is similar to, but not quite the same as, a flying wing design.
Boeing and NASA have scheduled up to 25 similar low-speed flights to gather more data about the operation of the plane. “We’re going to be looking at more specifically the low-noise characteristics of the vehicle, and then higher speeds – how it flies at higher speeds.” The engines, each of which produce 50 lbs of thrust, are mounted high on the top back of the aircraft to cut down on noise.
The X-48B is being developed by Phantom Works a research and development division of Boeing. “It’s our mission to continuously study innovative technologies and concepts with the idea that maybe they can improve performance and cost of our current airplane systems of today as well as future systems,” says Koehler.