A 225kg Model Plane Tests the Next Generation of Aircraft Design

By Andrew Tarantola on at

While the design has yet to catch on with civilian air travelers (focus groups hate amphitheater-style seating), Blended Wing Body aircraft hold great promise for military operations. To better study this innovative design without sinking untold extra millions into R&D, NASA built the next best thing—a 1:8.5 scale RC demonstrator.

The X-48B isn't a run of the mill RC plane, mind you. Designed by Boeing Phantom Works in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the X-48 has a 20-foot wingspan that accurately mimics the structural, aerodynamic and operational features of the Blended Wing Body concept. A trio of JetCat P200 turbojet engines propel the 250 kg model up to 136 mph with a 10,000 foot operational ceiling and a 40 minute flight duration.

The Blended Wind Body design—understandably unpopular with commercial carriers—does have several advantages over conventional aircraft, especially as a multi-role, long-range, high-capacity military transport. Flattening the body of the aircraft to act as part of the wing generates less drag, which translates into a longer operational range, better fuel economy, less noise, a larger payload capacity, and lower manufacturing and maintenance costs.

The X-48 Concept was first concocted in the late 1990's by engineers at McDonnell Douglas. After McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing, the firm worked with the NASA Langley Research Center to create a precursor to the X-48 program, a 17-foot wide propeller-driven drone that flew briefly in 1997. However, by the time the X-48A, a 35-foot BWB model got off the ground in 2004, Boeing had effectively cancelled the project.

Typically, when R&D projects like this are cancelled, they stay cancelled. However, by 2007, Boeing was back hard at work on the X-48B—a smaller, more robust iteration of the series design. Two such 48Bs were built here in the UK by Cranfield Aerospace. They first flew in July of that year at the NASA Dryden testing facility, reaching 7,500 feet during the 30 minute flight. "Earlier wind-tunnel testing and the upcoming flight testing are focused on learning more about the BWB's low-speed flight-control characteristics, especially during takeoffs and landings," Norman Princen, Boeing's chief engineer for the project, said. "Knowing how accurately our models predict these characteristics is an important step in the further development of this concept." 92 test flights and nearly two years later, Boeing and NASA concluded the X-48B's initial testing in March of 2010.

Since then, Boeing has been working to further upgrade the X-48's capabilities. Though built from an X-48B chassis, the new X-48C is even more quiet than its predecessor thanks to a Hybrid Wing Body (HWB) aircraft design. Other changes include relocating the upturned winglets, from out the wingtips in toward the engines, to increase stability. Also, Boeing replaced the trio of of 500 pound-thrust engines with a pair of smaller 89 pound-thrusters. The model C made its successful maiden voyage this past Tuesday above Edwards Air Force Base in California's Mojave Desert. [Defense Systems - Wikipedia - NASA - Boeing]