NASA’s Hybrid Wing Drone Soars on First Flight Tests

The 500-pound airplane aims to push technologies needed for quieter, cleaner and more fuel-efficient aircraft

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.