Flying, although faster, still isn’t a very pleasant way to travel. First, there’s the massive amount of fuel required to hoist a jet airliner carrying over 100 people into the air. Second, there’s the fact that when inside, one gets the sensation of a sardine stuffed inside a metal tube.

It turns out that aviation scientists have known for years that the tubular fuselage and bird wind design is far from efficient, but it’s the best they could do. Now, researchers at NASA have developed a “hybrid wing” shape that could dramatically reduce fuel consumption.

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Images via NASA / Carla Thomas

As you can see, instead of looking like a duck, NASA’s hybrid wing plane looks more like a manta ray. According to MIT’s Technology Review, this unique wing and body shape, combined with an extremely efficient ultra-high bypass ratio engine, could result in future airplanes that use about half of the fuel required by current ones.

This new shape comes complete with new challenges. For instance, how does one control the plane at low speeds? And how do you build a full-scale version of the aircraft with pressurized cabins that is structurally sound? One of the benefits of the tubular shape of current aircraft is that it can withstand large amounts of pressure.

For now, NASA is working with Boeing to test a 500 pound, remote controlled prototype at the agency’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. “This project is a huge success,” said Fay Collier, manager of the ERA Project in NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. “Bottom line: the team has proven the ability to fly tailless aircraft to the edge of the low-speed envelope safely.”

Now, they just need to work on a scaled up model to figure out how to keep the flattened cabin from collapsing under pressure. Although it may take 20 years for the technology to come to market, the manufacturing method developed at NASA could help improve conventional commercial aircraft within the next eight to 10 years, estimates Fay Collier, a NASA program manager.

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