Two years ago, NASA asked major US designers for the designs of aircraft for the future, based on a set of criteria. Those designs are now on show. The planes included a rectangle, a twin body plane, and a stealth bomber lookalike.
Northrop, Lockheed and Boeing were commissioned to come up with new designs for 2025. These aren’t necessarily fictional planes, either. Some of these designs hark back to the original X series of experimental aircraft. Others look quite reminiscent of a range of designs which started on science fiction magazines of the 1940s, but now they can really fly.
What’s noticeable is that the venerable DC3 style nose is obviously on the way out. For decades now, it’s been the proven best configuration for airliners, but it would definitely be out of place on some of these designs.
NASA’s criteria were pretty straightforward:
“…And each design has to fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound; cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles; and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload, either passengers or cargo.”
Additionally, designs for 2035 were also invited.
(Note:NASA is running the 2025 and 2035 plane designs simultaneously. There seems to have been some overlap in the copy between the two, so when you see a 2025 design in the list of 2035 slideshow, it's a matter of how the images are organized.)
The designs included quite a menagerie of aircraft. There are gull wings, needle nosed and very different types of airframe and engine layouts, including a “credit card with fins” design, which deserves respect for its design guts as much as for anything else, and even a reworked “stealth bomber” design.
The designs include some genuinely interesting concepts, but the logistics of others may still be on the drawing board.
· The stealth bomber design is a Boeing design. It looks like a reconfiguration of the B2 design with either two or three top mounted engines, and if it has the same range, a long haul capability like few others. The Boeing Icon II design isn’t a reworked Concorde. Like Lockheed, the very large rear engines are mounted above the wings, with a needle nose layout and F22 tail fins.
· Lockheed Martin have a raised tail engine and reworked wing configuration. This is interesting technology, but actual advantages of a tail assembly based engine are debatable. Lockheed Martin has also come up with an “inverted V” design with an arch over the tail intended to reduce sonic booms using 4 engines above the wings.
· Northrop Grumman have a basic design which involves two airliner bodies with conjoined wings and twin engines in the centre. Prognosis- not an aircraft where you’d want engine problems, and not likely to fit well on airstrips.
· MIT’s D8 design is a rear engined, ship-like design with a large “stabilizer fin” tail. Triple engines indicate a lot of power, and obvious high passenger capacity. Another MIT design, the Hybrid, uses a delta layout with “embedded” engines and shuttle-like thrust vectoring.
Aircraft design fans and science fiction addicts won’t need to be told the lineage of some of these designs. They’ve been dreams, previously. What’s really interesting is that these designs include quite a few of the supersonic tail assemblies and other designs which were first flagged about 10 years ago.
These designs therefore refer to speed, as much as the other criteria. Add to this the demand by NASA for fuel efficiency, and the future of aircraft design is looking considerably healthier than the seemingly endless “variations on a 707” routine of the past.
There are issues with creating whole new designs like these. Although these designs are arguably more efficient than the current Airbus/Boeing dichotomy, retooling and creating whole new airframe and engine assemblies isn’t all that easy. To get to production stage, there are several things that need to be looked at.
The tail-mounted engine, for example, brings with it some “interesting” engineering issues. It’s not impossible, but mounting an engine on a tail involves some very unusual stresses for jets. The “bomber” design is actually a proven design concept, but the fuel issues are another matter. For commercial purposes, fuel costs are routinely a primary problem.
The needle nose planes are actually very high altitude plane designs. That’s another vexed question among designers, because although the high altitude planes have definite flight advantages for speed and range, their logistics are pretty complex. These aircraft bring with them a whole new production technology as well as tooling and commercial issues. If these planes were within the parameters for runway usage, they’ve come quite a long way since inception. If not, the high altitude plane concept still has to take that first step to viability.
The other obvious feature of these designs is that introducing high performance characteristics into civil aviation is now on the agenda, at least in theory. That also includes better economics for airlines, if the planes live up to their design concepts. It remains to be seen if any of these planes will fly, but the ideas are definitely up and running.