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NASA's Blended Wing prototype reconfigured for extra hush


January 29, 2013

In flight: NASA's X48-C Blended Wing Body prototype (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)

In flight: NASA's X48-C Blended Wing Body prototype (Photo: NASA/Carla Thomas)

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It's easy to forget that, between roving Mars and maintaining a permanent manned space presence, NASA also takes a keen interest in conventional flight. Developed in conjunction with Boeing, NASA's unmanned X-48C is the latest iteration in its six-year X-48 program to develop an efficient Blended Wing Body aircraft. So perhaps we should modify that prior statement: NASA also takes a keen interest in unconventional conventional flight.

Gizmag has followed the X-48 program with interest over the years, but to recap, the X-48 is a Blended Wing Body aircraft, which is something of a halfway house between a flying wing and a conventional airplane (i.e. one with a distinct fuselage and wings). Unlike a flying wing, a Blended Wing Body aircraft has a fuselage, though its squashed form helps to generate lift. The wings, predominantly for stability, do not house crew or cargo.

It's thought that the Blended Wing form offers increased fuel efficiency and reduced noise compared to conventional aircraft. Absent from more recent rhetoric are the potential military applications of such an aircraft, which have previously prompted interest from the US Air Force Research Laboratory.

The third incarnation in the program, the X-48C builds on the foundations laid by the successful X-48B configuration, which made 92 flights between 2007 and 2010. The design changes have been focused on reducing the noise of the aircraft at ground level, a development that would be of clear benefit to communities under flight paths should Blended Wing Body aircraft one day see commercial use.

The most obvious change is the reduction of the X-48B's three engines (generating 50 pounds/222 newtons of thrust each) to two heftier engines (each capable of generating 89 pounds/396 newtons of thrust). A little more subtle is the relocation of the wingtips from the main wings to the newly-created tail section and aft deck, which protrudes about 2 feet (60 cm) from the back of the plane.

The X48-C is about the same size as its predecessor, with a wingspan of a little over 20 feet (6 meters) and a weight of 500 pounds (227 kg). Both the X-48B and X-48C are 8.5-percent scale prototypes of a 40-foot wingspan aircraft that could yet come. Its estimated top speed is 140 mph (225 km/h), and its ceiling is 10,000 feet.

The X48-C, built by Cranfield Aerospace in the UK, first took to the skies in August of last year. It flew for the eighth time in November, more notable because it the hundredth flight of the X48 program as a whole. It is expect to fly another 20 times before its stage of the program concludes.

Source: NASA (August, November)

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life. All articles by James Holloway

I think that is really cool. I think it is the future for airlines. It would be neat to see a smaller version for non-airline uses. :)


Why is NASA developing stealth aircraft? Leave that to DARPA. Also, why don't they move all reflective surfaces (bomb bays, landing gear, intake, exhaust and sensors to the bottom of the UAV. This would make the top perfectly smooth. The UAV could then launch, attain cruising altitude the flip upside down to continue the mission in total stealth. Upon reaching the target, bomb bay doors open on the top of the UAV, it rolls, releases the weapon, then continues the roll to disappear again. Simple, really.

James Barbour

Good for freight and private business class aircraft -- bad for large commercial passenger aircraft.

Can you imagine spending 5-12 hours shrouded in a metal box bouncing around the sky with no windows? BARF -- a lot....


The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was a U.S. federal agency founded on March 3, 1915. On October 1, 1958, the agency was dissolved, and its assets and personnel transferred to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

I only add this as your story suggests a "Keen Interest in conventional flight", when in fact avionics is a core service that NASA oversee for all. If you design a wing, propeller, turbine or rotor blade then you are likely to use NACA / NASA data and profiles.

Sorry to pick you up on this, but NASA provide free research and data that keeps us all in the air. They are Top Guys ;0)

John Laity

I believe the reduced engine noise level and build costs based on not having a wing box frame to fuselage joint would create much less drag. Think of it as a move toward a uni-body - combine the use of composites you have a lighter stronger more efficient platform. You can place the engines above the wing, as they have done and optimize their efficiency. We need to look at reducing fuel costs and this is a good start,

Jeff Shartzer

Interesting how much this looks like a stingray. Makes you wonder if designers have gained advantage by perceiving the atmosphere (at certain speeds) as a liquid and, if so, whether faster craft could end up looking like even more exotic marine life such as the maneuverable & speedy (yet counterintuitive) squid.

Fritz Menzel

Since the aircraft is very quiet, they should go to the next logical step: short-hop (200-600 miles) airliners that are powered by electric motors (propellors) via a glorified, 2000 ft "extension cord". An elevated trackway would carry a "shoe" which would be pulled along in the trackway by the aircraft, making an electrical connection to mains power on the ground. With a predetermined flightpath, hijackers are out of luck. And, no need for a pilot onboard. Drone-style controls. Perhaps top speed would be 250 mph, but overall travel time would be much faster than any "bullet train" or current airline travel (with security, remote airport locations, etc). Onboard backup batteries would provide the ability to make an emergency landing within four-minutes of a "no power" alarm. Electric motors= very low maintenance costs, no refueling delays, very low capital costs per aircraft.

Scott in California

To replace B2 bomber?

Stephen Russell

It is not a stealth design just aerodynamically clean.


re; Scott in California

Consider the weight and drag of the cables, the bird and bats that would be killed, and how often the cables would break and kill someone on the ground.


Why was this thing built by the British with our tax dollars? We need to keep these monies in the USA for American jobs and to protect the technology from the Chinese. DUH! Didn't NASA know we were in a recession???


@Scott in California,

We already have a high-speed vehicle that are tethered to a mains electrical supply and which travels along a pre-determined route.

We calls it a 'train'...


To me it looks a bit like an update of the old British Avro Vulcan Vbomber! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avro_Vulcan


This isn't a Stealth Design. Stealth Design maximizes corners to reduce the radar cross section. The coatings are just to reduce the reflection further.

This design has no real corners showing. It's all smooth curves, except on the trailing edges. That is to reduce drag.

What they have done here is to move the engines from beneath the wings to above the lifting body. This means that the engine noise will be primarily reflected up, instead of down, as engines placed below the main wing are do. It would be quite noisy if you happen to live above the airliner. But we don't. The C version moves the engines from the tail end forward, to allow the tail surface to reflect more of the noise upward.

What this basic design does is to minimize the number of window seats, and allow more passengers/cargo area on the same deck, instead of having multiple decks as larger aircraft currently do. Most seats on current airliners are not window seats. On a 747 or similar sized Airbus, only 2 out of 12 seats on a given row are window seats. Riding one of these would be more like sitting in a large conference room than in a current aircraft.

As an engineer, the first thing I noted is that the engine mount will provide quite a lot of torque on the body. They had better brace for that. It will make flying this quite different from a standard jet aircraft. But, the computer controls should be able to compensate for that.

Many old seaplanes had the same problem. Lots of tubular bracing and a large tail section overcame the issues. but, here, the bracing would directly take away from the passenger space. They definitely have the large tail section.

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