NASA has flown a scale model of its updated blended wing-body research aircraft in a small step toward what many believe will be a giant leap in aircraft design.
The Boeing-designed X-48C took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California yesterday morning (US time) and reached an altitude of 5,500ft before landing nine minutes later, NASA said.
A remotely-piloted 8.5 per cent scale model, the 250kg X-48C features a 6.4m wingspan and can reach an estimated top speed of about 120kt and a maximum altitude of 10,000ft.
The new prototype builds on the X-48B, which flew 92 times between 2007 and 2010. The X-48C is configured with two 89lb thrust turbojet engines as opposed to the X-48B’s three 50lb thrust engines. Wingtip winglets have been relocated inboard next to the engines, effectively turning them into twin tails, while the aft deck was extended by 60cm at the rear.
In effect, the X-48 design represents something of a middle ground between a ‘flying wing’ concept and a traditional aircraft that will handle much like the latter while offering a 20 to 30 per cent improvement in efficiency. Though the US military is likely to be the first customer, the design could eventually make its way to commercial aircraft.
That remains some way off, however. NASA plans to fly the X-48C about 20 times before stepping up to a human-piloted prototype within about five years. A final, full-size version could be ready within a decade.