NASA and DARPA’s New Plans for the X-Plane and the Future of Flight


Given the X, it should come as no surprise to learn that the X-planes are a series of experimental aircraft as well as rockets made by the United States for the purpose of research. As a result, most of them have been operated by either the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) or its predecessor in that role, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), though it is important to note that there have been numerous exceptions to this rule.

Why Are X-Planes Needed?

X-planes are important for the usual reasons that prototypes are important. First, they are a way to make sure that the techniques and technologies that went into them are actually capable of providing the performance that their creators have promised, thus preventing all of the catastrophic consequences that can come with an untested vehicle. Second, the X-planes are a great way to see which prototypes are better-suited for a particular purpose than their counterparts, thus ensuring that the various branches of the U.S. government can benefit from having the most suitable vehicles possible at their disposal. One example of this process is the Joint Strike Fighter Program, which saw the Lockheed Martin X-35 coming out ahead of the Boeing X-36, thus resulting in its selection as the F-35. Summed up, the X-planes might be expensive and time-consuming to build, but their existence serves to maximize the results while also minimizing the costs for the United States, which is critically important when even a single vehicle costs millions and millions of dollars as well as more besides over the course of its expected useful lifespan.

Boing X 36

What Is NASA Planning?

Recently, NASA announced the New Aviation Horizons initiative, which is meant to encourage aircraft makers to speed up the rate at which they are adopting greener aircraft techniques and technologies by showing them that it can be done over a period of ten years. (1) The techniques and technologies that will be seeing use in its planned X-planes are both numerous and varied in nature, with examples ranging from better fans to lightweight composite materials. In exchange, this means that the expected benefits will be numerous and varied in nature as well.

For example, the first X-plane of the New Aviation Horizons initiative will be the X-54, a piloted aircraft that can manage supersonic speeds but create a soft thump rather than the loud boom associated with the breaking of the sound barrier by other airplanes. (2) This is important because it will enable the return of supersonic passenger flight by eliminating most of the noise pollution that made it unsuitable for use in the first place, meaning that future passengers could benefit by seeing sizable reductions in their travel times. So far, the project behind the X-plane seems to be making excellent progress, seeing as how NASA has already chosen to award the contract to Lockheed Martin, which will be collaborating with a couple of sub-contractors also situated in the United States.

However, it is important to note that NASA is also working on other intriguing techniques and technologies, with an excellent example being something called LEAPTech. In short, LEAPTech is meant to test whether tighter propulsion-airframe integration made possible by electric power will result in better performance in addition to the better results for the environment that can be had by using electric power. (3) At the moment, NASA is still testing the concept with the use of a carbon composite wing section with electric motors, but once it learns more through these tests, it plans to replace the wings and engines of a Tecnam P2006T with LEAPTech, which will give it a way to make a direct comparison between LEAPTech and its predecessors.


What Is DARPA Planning?

Meanwhile, DARPA has its VTOL X-Plane program, which seeks to combine the speed of airplanes with the vertical capabilities of helicopters in the same vehicle. (4) To be exact, DARPA intends for its new X-plane to be able to reach a top speed of between 300 and 400 knots, with a single not being a speed of about 1.1508 miles per hour. Furthermore, it intends its new X-plane to have an aircraft hover efficiency of at least 75 percent, a cruise lift-to-drag ratio of at least 10, and a carrying capacity of at least 40 percent of its projected gross weight of 10,000 to 12,000 pounds. Unsurprisingly, all of these factors are significant improvements upon previous capabilities, thus making this an extremely ambitious vehicle.

At the present, the contract for Phase 2 of the VTOL X-Plane has been awarded to Aurora Flight Sciences, which has come up with something that looks as though it has come out of science fiction. In short, the vehicle has a pair of rotary wings mounted towards its front as well as a bigger pair of rotary wings mounted towards its back, which contain the rotors that provide it with its flight. When the X-plane is on the ground, its wings will be oriented vertically in order to provide it with the lift that it needs to get into the air, but once the X-plane has gotten into the air, its wings can be oriented horizontally in order to enable forward flight. All powered using an electric engine. Initially, this vehicle will be an unmanned model, but DARPA has stated that the techniques and technologies used in its creation are expected to see eventual use in manned vehicles as well because of VTOL vehicles’ suitability for a wide range of missions.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Flight?

While the VTOL X-Plane is interesting in its own right, chances are good that most people will be more affected by NASA’s New Aviation Horizons initiative, which is meant to introduce widespread changes in the airplanes and other vehicles used for day-to-day matters. Assuming that everything goes according to plan, it seems probable that we can expect not just more efficient and effective results but also outstanding performance that will not come at the expense of green initiatives to curb climate change, thus ensuring that we can satisfy both priorities.



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