For basically all of aviation history, the design of passenger aircraft has not really changed. Most of the aircraft we see today consist of a cylinder shaped fuselage with wings attached to it. Because of the X-48 by Boeing, this could all change within the next decade. You might be wondering, today’s design seems to work right? Why change it? This is a very valid question as you’d be right, today’s aircraft design standards DO work! But they aren’t perfect. The Boeing X-48 along with other blended wing aircraft hope to fix some of the problems with today’s aircraft.
The idea for such an oddly shaped aircraft as the Boeing X-48 arose mostly out of curiosity, but also aimed to solve several problems with today’s aircraft design standards; the biggest one of these issues being that of efficiency. The aviation industry has been plagued with efficiency problems for as long as airplanes have been flying. Today, aircraft are much more efficient than they ever have been. But they are still anything but cheap to operate. In fact, the average cost per hour to operate a Boeing 737 per HOUR is just short of $7,600! But why are airliners so expensive to operate? It really comes down to one thing; drag. Although modern airliners look sleek and aerodynamic (which they are) there is one key component of them that keeps airlines from being as efficient as they could be. This component is the tail section of the aircraft. More specifically the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. These three small wings on the tail of the aircraft are vital to an airliners safety. The horizontal stabilizers keep the aircraft level and the vertical keeps it straight. Interestingly, these three surfaces account for a very substantial amount of drag on an airliner, causing today’s aircraft to be rather inefficient. This is where the X-48 comes in. The X-48 developed by both NASA and Boeing aimed to completely eliminate both horizontal and vertical stabilizers to increase aircraft efficiency. This was achieved by constructing a brand new type of aircraft known as a ‘blended wing’ aircraft; meaning the wings and fuselage are all one giant piece instead of two separate parts. The purpose of the X-48 was to study the performance of blended wing aircraft and pave the way for the aircraft of the future.
As previously stated, the design of the X-48 is different from any other aircraft out there and features a blended wing design. A blended wing design aims to either lower an aircrafts dependency on aft stabilizers, or completely eliminate the need for them in the first place. This is achieved because a blended wing body produces its own static stability, essentially acting as one giant stabilizer. The engines of the X-48 are also placed on the back of the aircraft and also function as a sort of low drag vertical stabilizer. All in all, the number one goal of the X-48’s design was ultimate efficiency.
When it comes to the advantages of the X-48 or any other blended wing aircraft over a normal airliner today, there are plenty to name. The first and foremost is, you guessed it, efficiency! Not only is the concept of efficient airliners good for the owners of the aircraft, but it’s good for us too! With more efficient airliners comes much cheaper ticket costs and a cleaner atmosphere. Thats always a good thing! Aside from efficiency, blended wing aircraft have other advantages over normal, cylinder shaped aircraft. One of the biggest advantages is safety. An issue that airliners tend to have is a lack of emergency exits, making it much more difficult to safely and quickly exit an aircraft in the state of an emergency. On a blended wing aircraft, there is not just one or two rows down the middle. There are many rows that branch off from one main row in the middle. This allows for the installation of many more emergency exits, thus creating a safer aircraft. However, not everything about this aircraft is all cupcakes and rainbows.
Although the X-48 and other similar designs have many advantages over today’s airliners, they also have some disadvantages. One of these being that in order to keep a blended wing aircraft completely stable, it requires a very complex ‘fly by wire’ system. The reason that this could be a bad thing is that it could lead to more equipment failures and malfunctions as there are more areas for the aircraft to fail. Another issue regarding blended wing aircraft is that they might be hard to sell to airlines. Airlines have been functioning the same way for many many years now and a completely changing the way things are done with a new aircraft could lead to a variety of problems. These issues however, are purely hypothetical and may not even end up being issues in the first place if they work themselves out in the future.
When Will We Start Seeing It?
This all sounds great but when will we start seeing these aircraft at our airports? Well, we may never see them. Currently blended wing designs are still in development and may turn out to not be as great as they initially seemed to be. We can only hope. Something to keep in mind is that although this article was mainly about the Boeing eX-48, it is really regarding all blended wing aircraft that are to come. The goal of this article is to point out that the X-48 is the first stepping stone into blended wing designs that may lead to more aircraft in the future. One thing is for certain though; if blended wing aircraft become a reality, it will change aviation as we know it today.
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If you want more information on the X-48 itself, check out this great article by ‘Aerospace Technology’ here!