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X-56A to aid NASA in development of new kinds of lightweight, flexible aircraft


March 20, 2012

Computer image of the X-56A unmanned modular aircraft that NASA will use to test enabling technologies for new kinds of lightweight, energy-efficient, flexible aircraft (Image: U.S. Air Force)

Computer image of the X-56A unmanned modular aircraft that NASA will use to test enabling technologies for new kinds of lightweight, energy-efficient, flexible aircraft (Image: U.S. Air Force)

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NASA has announced it will use a modular, unmanned flight research vehicle being built by Lockheed Martin for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to test enabling technologies for new kinds of lightweight, energy-efficient, flexible aircraft. The small aircraft, dubbed the X-56A, will be used to explore ways to suppress vibrations and alleviate the load on flexible aircraft from wind gusts and atmospheric turbulence.

While long, thin flexible wings can significantly reduce the weight of an aircraft, thereby increasing its endurance, they are susceptible to uncontrollable vibrations – or “flutter” – caused from the force of air flowing over them. This force has the potential to seriously damage the aircraft and can result in “catastrophic failure.”

The X-56A, which is also known as the Multi-Utility Technology Testbed (MUTT) flight demonstrator, is powered by twin 52-pound thrust JetCat P200-SX turbine engines, with an additional hard point in the center of the aft upper deck of the fuselage for the mounting of an additional third engine or structural member to enable the testing of joined wing configurations.

The aircraft measures 7.5 feet (2.3 m) long, weighs 480 pounds (217.7 kg) and boasts a wingspan of 28 feet (8.5 m). Its modular design allows for easy wing replacement that the AFRL says will allow for the testing of various flexible wing configurations and a wide range of aerodynamic concepts.

NASA engineers will examine techniques to suppress flutter in real time by deliberately stimulating flutter in flight and actively adjusting software programs in the aircraft’s flight control computer. The researchers also hope to learn how to better alleviate the bending forces placed on wings from wind gusts and atmospheric turbulence – known as gust loads. This knowledge will help improve the safety of flexible aircraft when experiencing in-flight turbulence.

NASA says that, although the X-56A is a low-speed, subsonic research aircraft, the knowledge gained about flutter and gust suppression will also be used in designing the proposed supersonic X-54 - a research and demonstration aircraft being developed by Gulfstream Aerospace for use in sonic boom and supersonic transport research.

The X-56A is being built by Lockheed Martin, which will conduct flight experiments for the AFRL that are scheduled to commence in the northern summer 2012. NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center will oversee these flights before taking ownership of the aircraft in early autumn for follow-on research.

Sources: NASA, AFRL

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Iwant to fly away in a electric aircraft

Joe Tomicki

If you are to develop a new aircraft or car or washing machine: what do you have to state?

At least two of these terms: ultra efficient, hyper lightweight, anti fuel consuming, radical design, climate protecting, lowest carbon footprint within the next twenty universes, do only use superlatives, and do only use popular keywords!

It's strange. But for the last decade I got a feeling of being spoofed when I read those words...

So - are these ultra-hyper-radical-super-efficient concepts to take seriously? I mean, which of the promises have been followed up (in the last 10 years)?

Cars consume 2 to 3 gallons per 60 miles, aircraft consume 1 gallon per payed passenger per 60 miles. Nothing changed. And are these things those, I really want?

For: the available space for the passenger shrinks. I can use electronic entertainment to distract myself from inconvenience, but what I really want I don't get: space to travel comfortable.

If I am outside an aircraft I see all the aircraft in the sky making a blue sky a grey sky. I hear aircraft making an enjoyable ambient nature noise a stressing drone.

Where is the advancement the people really want?


Excellent concept. This looks like a promising test-bed for numerous technologies.

Alan Belardinelli

@Joe - many of these type of technologies have been going into production - the 787 and latest Aerobus designs use tech derived from earlier research (it does take time to get into production) - in fact pretty much all our airliners come from research like this.

Swept, flexible wings make flying much more comfortable than the old rigid and straight wings - came from this type of thing (albeit much of it in wartime). The winglets we see on the tips of airliners came from this type of thing - and has increased efficiencies significantly.


@ Suvilo....I agree....it's seems the pace of things is not what it should be. Add to that tendencies of the industries to not change.

Great example is the car companies. They have untold billions invested in making cars a certain way. They would have trouble changing if they wanted to. Look at Saturn. They had plastic panels for the cars. Bodywork could be done with a wrench. You'd think that was a no brainer for a pickup truck.

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