From human-powered to hypersonic, a look at the top aeronautical stories of 2013
By David Szondy
December 26, 2013
It’s almost 2014 and time for a bit of aeronautical reflection as we look back at what records were broken, which new prizes were won, and what new technologies promise us a hypersonic, jet-packed future of aviation and innovation. So let’s have a glance at Gizmag’s pick of the top five aeronautical achievements of 2013.
The Sikorsky Prize is claimed
If you look at old newsreels of crackpot inventors and their flying machines, they usually include shots of someone pedaling like mad inside a helicopter-like contraption with rotors whirling about in a frenzy while the machine remains firmly rooted to the ground. It’s funny, but perhaps we laughed a wee bit too soon. On June 13, AeroVelo's Atlas helicopter scooped up the US$250,000 Sikorsky Prize for a human-powered helicopter that manages to fly for over a minute and attain an altitude of over 3 m (9.8 ft) while remaining within a 10 m x 10 m (33 x 33 ft) box. The Sikorsky Prize remained unclaimed for 33 years.
With its four rotors arranged in a square formation and powered by the pilot working the pedals furiously, the Atlas set a world record with its flight time of 64.11 seconds. The aircraft flew to a height of 3.3 m (10.8 ft), and deviated from an effective standstill by only 9.8 m (32 ft). The flight consisted of a 10-second ascent followed by a very gradual return to Earth, during which the pilot had to work against drift. This is a remarkable achievement when you consider that in August 2012 it flew for four seconds only to be followed by two crashes this year.
X-47B lands on a carrier
2013 was the year when Maverick from Top Gun had a sign that it might be time to dust off his resume and look for another job. We’re used to living in a world where pin monkeys, bank tellers, and telemarketers are replaced by machines, but fighter pilots? If the X-47B has anything to say about it, that day may not be so far off.
On May 14, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System demonstrator (UCAS-D) took to the air from the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) off the coast of Virginia, making it the first autonomous unmanned aircraft to make a catapult launch from an aircraft carrier. Shot off the deck of the Nimitz-class carrier by a steam catapult like an operational carrier-based aircraft, the jet-propelled drone executed several low-altitude carrier approaches to demonstrate its ability to operate in a carrier environment, then flew across Chesapeake Bay and landed at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.
This was followed up on July 10, when the X-47B made its first unmanned arrested-wire carrier landing. It flew in from Patuxent River and touched down on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush at about 145 knots (167 mph, 268 km/h) with an arresting wire catching its tail hook and bringing it to a stop in 350 ft (107 m).
What’s remarkable about this is not that the US Navy and Northrop Grumman have spent a decade developing a UAV that can take off and land on a carrier, but that they’ve come up with a prototype combat aircraft that may one day lead to operational drones that can carrying out missions according to pre-programmed instructions rather than being under constant control by a ground-based pilot. Indeed, the X-47B may herald the day when manned military aircraft are the exception, with most aircraft flying into battle as robots or with empty cockpits as human pilots are reserved for command and control or carrying out special missions.
“Where’s my jetpack," you ask? Maybe not too far away. Back in February, we looked at Skyflash, the brainchild of German Fritz Unger and a group of friends, who are developing a personal jetpack with a name out of Thunderbirds. Because it’s actually meant to fly rather than act as a glorified film prop, Skyflash looks a bit ungainly with its huge wing, but what it lacks in grace it will (hopefully) make up for in aerodynamics.
The wing, which is worn like a backpack, is powered by two microturbine diesel jet-engines fitted into the central “wingbody," which is the part that straps to the pilot. It contains the electronics and computer, which links to an 8-inch graphic interface strapped to the pilot’s arm. The fuel tanks are in the wings and connect to the fuel system automatically when installed on the wingbody before flight.
The secret behind Skyflash’s design is that it uses wing morphing technology, meaning that it alters shape to meet changing conditions during takeoff and flight. It’s based on the wings of the condor – a soaring bird with the ability to alter its wing structure to take advantage of variable mountain wind conditions. The wing is designed to take off from the ground and, if successful, will be the smallest twin engined plane ever built.
To date, Skyflash is still earthbound, but in September it underwent powered taxi tests at an airfield in Germany.
Last May, it was fourth time lucky for Boeing’s X-51A Waverider, as it blasted into the history books. The fourth test of the hypersonic drone achieved the longest scramjet-powered hypersonic flight yet, hitting a top speed of Mach 5.1 (which is 2,924 knots, 3,366 mph and 5,417 km/h using SI standard conversion). Dropped from a B-52H bomber out of Edwards Air Force Base in California, the unmanned craft flew at top speed for three and a half minutes before it made a controlled dive into the Pacific Ocean after six minutes of flight.
It was definitely a comeback for Waverider after a spectacular failure in 2012 when an airfoil deployed prematurely, sending the craft into a supersonic tailspin that tore it to shreds. Waverider is so called because it rides its own shockwave at hypersonic speeds in excess of Mach 5. It’s a demonstrator for a new breed of hypersonic technology that may soon revolutionize the aerospace field with missiles flying so fast that they’ll be almost impossible to counter with anything short of a laser beam, and new space launch vehicles that could lower the costs of getting into orbit dramatically.
The new speed record breaks the previous one set by a previous Waverider vehicle in 2010.
Last, but most emphatically not least, is Lockheed Martin’s announcement in November that it was working on a replacement for the legendary SR-71 Blackbird supersonic spy plane. The new craft, already dubbed the SR-72, is basically Waverider on steroids. Where Waverider straps under the wing of a bomber and only fires up after a rocket motor boosts it to supersonic speeds, the SR-72 will be as large as its predecessor with a length of over a hundred feet (30 m) and will use a conventional jet turbine engine to bring it up to supersonic speed before its hypersonic ramjet kicks in.
When the ramjet is activated, Lockheed says that the SR-72 will hit sustained speeds of up to Mach 6, which is twice what the Cold War SR-71 could manage, and it will have the same range of 2,900 nautical miles (5,400 km) while flying on the edge of space. Furthermore, the new hypersonic craft will be unmanned or man-optional, which means a huge boost in performance, since it doesn’t need to worry about killing its pilot or rendering them unconscious in extremely tight maneuvers or fast climbs.
If the SR-72 becomes operation by its projected date of 2030, Lockheed sees it as a reconnaissance plane or a platform for firing hypersonic missiles while already flying at hypersonic speeds. One can only hope that the technology will find its way into civilian applications, so we can have breakfast in London and be in Sydney in time for mid-morning coffee.
With these sort of aerial highlights in 2013, we’re definitely looking forward to what the new year will bring.
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