Cosmic Tech

Air Force picks its builders for a swoopy kind of aircraft

Get ready for another prototype airplane that looks as if it flew straight out of a science-fiction novel.

The Department of the Air Force has selected JetZero’s design for a prototype aircraft that has a swoopy blended wing body, or BWB, rather than the typical tube-and-wing look.

The design has the potential to decrease aerodynamic drag by at least 30% and provide additional lift. This could translate into extended range, more loiter time and increased payload delivery efficiencies for the Air Force.

“Blended wing body aircraft have the potential to significantly reduce fuel demand and increase global reach,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in a news release. “Moving forces and cargo quickly, efficiently, and over long distance is a critical capability to enable national security strategy.”

Commercial aviation could benefit as well. “The BWB is the best first step on the path to zero carbon emissions,” JetZero CEO Tom O’Leary said in a news release. “It offers 50% lower fuel burn using today’s engines, and the airframe efficiency needed to support a transition to zero carbon emissions propulsion in the future. No other proposed aircraft comes close in terms of efficiency.”

California-based JetZero’s partners in the project include Northrop Grumman and its subsidiary, Scaled Composites. JetZero has selected Pratt & Whitney’s GTF engines to power the demonstrator airplane.

The Pentagon plans to invest $235 million in BWB technology over the next four years, with additional private investment expected. The effort is the result of a collaboration involving the Department of the Air Force, NASA and the Defense Innovation Unit, with assistance from the Department of Defense’s Office of Strategic Capital.

The BWB concept has been around for decades, but recent innovations in structural design, materials science, manufacturing processes and other technologies have now made it possible to think about putting the streamlined dream into large-scale production. Flight tests are due to begin by 2027.

This image gallery shows off a sampling of unorthodox aircraft designs. Click on each illustration for a larger version.

More out-of-this-world aircraft

JetZero’s blended wing body design is just one approach for changing the look of future aircraft to improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. Here are a few other approaches:

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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