Air Force Designs Unmanned Lightweight Aircraft for NASA

April 24, 2012

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is developing a new unmanned airplane that the military and NASA will use to test the effect of air flow on flexible wings to promote innovations in lightweight aircraft design.

This summer, NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center will oversee Air Force tests of the Multi-Use Technology Testbed (MUTT), a new X-plane called the X-56A that Lockheed Martin is building under contract for the AFRL. The MUTT is seven and a half feet long, has a 28-foot wingspan, and weighs 480 pounds. Two 52-pound thrust JetCat P200-SX turbine engines power the low-speed plane, according to NASA.

AFRL researchers plan to use the tests to inform decisions on future designs of both subsonic and supersonic aircraft, particularly in the areas of building more stable wing design and lowering both aircraft noise and emissions.

US airspace will one day be open for unmanned aircraft, and the government is exploring ways to make them safer for flight. They also hope to reduce aircraft greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers will use knowledge gained from the MUTT tests to create technology to quiet sonic booms, the noise of which currently prevents supersonic commercial flight over land in the US, according to the Air Force.

Specifically, the Air Force tests will focus on the effect of vibrations, called flutter, that result from the force of air over the X-56A's wings, which are longer and thinner than those on conventional aircrafts, according to NASA. Flutter can cause aircraft instability and even cause a plane to crash.

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