SHARE

An unmanned aircraft with the appearance of a flying manta ray could herald the future of jetliners. NASA and Boeing’s flying lab has wrapped up the first series of flight tests that should help pave the way for less noisy, more fuel-efficient airplanes that also emit less pollution.

The 500-pound X-48B aircraft celebrated its 80th and last flight of the project’s first phase on March 19, 2010, or almost three years after its first flight on July 20, 2007.

NASA engineers spent that time testing how quickly the blended wing body responded to remote commands, and put the aircraft design through flight maneuvers such as stall testing, angle of attack, sideslip angle and acceleration to see if the onboard computer could keep the plane steady.

“This project is a huge success,” said Fay Collier, manager of NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project. “Bottom line: the team has proven the ability to fly tailless aircraft to the edge of the low-speed envelope safely.”

The U.S. space agency plans more tests later this year with a newer flight computer for the X-48B. A second hybrid wing body aircraft, the X-48C, has an even lower noise profile and awaits test flights.

Such a design may not seem quite as radical as NASA’s vision for the stealthy personal tilt-rotor aircraft that could serve future commuters. But unlike the latter computer-generated vision, the X-48B has proven its flying chops and could sooner lead to better commercial airline rides for everyone.

For more blended wing goodness, check out the images here.

NASA-Boeing X-48B subscale Blended Wing Body aircraft

This closeup of Boeing Phantom Works’ unique X-48B Blended Wing Body technology demonstrator shows off its unusual engine placement and super-critical airfoil on Aug. 14, 2007. (NASA/Tony Landis)

NASA-Boeing X-48B subscale Blended Wing Body aircraft

NASA engineer Gary Cosentino communicates with fellow X-48B flight team personnel in preparation for another flight on March 19, 2010. (NASA/Tony Landis)

NASA-Boeing X-48B subscale Blended Wing Body aircraft

Cranfield Aerospace Limited technician Ian Brooks prepares the X-48B for flight on March 19, 2010.

NASA-Boeing X-48B subscale Blended Wing Body aircraft

A NASA/Boeing team has completed the first phase of flight tests on the unique X-48B Blended Wing Body aircraft.

NASA-Boeing X-48B subscale Blended Wing Body aircraft

NASA Dryden Flight Research Center’s T-34 support aircraft provides safety chase for the joint NASA/Boeing X-48B on March 19, 2010.

NASA-Boeing X-48B subscale Blended Wing Body aircraft

A NASA/Boeing team has completed the first phase of flight tests on the unique X-48B Blended Wing Body aircraft.

MORE TO READ