NASA Wants To Design The Planes Of The Future

Composite image of the different design NASA is toying with for the X-planes. NASA / Lillian Gipson

If the federal budget is approved in full, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, don't forget) will try to revolutionize aeronautics in the next 10 years by developing an aircraft that produces less emissions, noise, and uses less fuel than current models on the market. 

The ambitious project is called New Aviation Horizons and aims to design, build, and fly a variety of flight demonstration vehicles dubbed "X-planes." The work on these experimental aircraft will assess the feasibility of brand-new technologies, designs, and materials, and NASA thinks this will help move new technology more quickly into the commercial sector.

"We're at the right place, at the right time, with the right technologies," Jaiwon Shin, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, said in a statement. “The full potential of these technologies can’t be realized in the tube-and-wing shape of today’s aircraft. We need the X-planes to prove, in an undeniable way, how that tech can make aviation more Earth friendly, reduce delays and maintain safety for the flying public, and support an industry that’s critical to our nation’s economic vitality."

The X-planes will include several experimental innovations: Lightweight composite materials might be used for the craft and the engines, new fan designs can improve propulsion and reduce noise, and different wing shapes can make the planes fasters. NASA’s researchers estimate that once this tech is put into service, it will save $10 billion a year for the airline industry.

A version of a hybrid wing body plane with engines on top of the back end, flanked by two vertical tails to shield people on the ground from engine noise. NASA / Boeing

Design-wise, NASA is thinking of a hybrid wing-body craft. By having wings that blend into the fuselage (instead of the traditional tube plus wings structure), the team engineers believe they can reduce fuel use and emissions, as well as reduce noise during take-off, approach, and landing.

NASA has even designed a business-jet-sized supersonic vehicle that has low bio-fuel consumption and is shaped in a way that the sonic boom it emits cannot be heard by people on the ground. If the budget is approved and work starts immediately, the first test flight could start as early as 2020.

“This is an exciting time for the entire NASA Aeronautics team and for those who benefit from aviation, which, frankly, is everyone,” Shin said. “With this 10-year plan to accelerate the transformation of aviation, the United States can maintain its status as the world’s leader in aviation for many years to come.”    

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