Posted September 1, 2012 by Thomas Anderson in Products & Tech

NASA Funds Radical New Aircraft Concept

NASA Funds Radical New Aircraft Concept


One of the fundamental problems with aerodynamics is that a single design can’t work for the many jobs an aircraft may need to do. Some planes can hover, others can soar long distances, some are maneuverable, and some can fly insanely fast in one direction. Many planes will need to fill at least two of these roles, since taking off and landing will by necessity require slower, more maneuverable movement. While a few planes, like the B-1 Lancer or the F-14 Tomcat, can modify the shape of their air-frame to take on these multiple roles, a new concept has begun development that may just put the sweep-wing design to shame.

A team of designers at the University of Miami have developed a plan for a plane that rotates its entire body 90 degrees, mid-flight, to switch from a sub-sonic mode for takeoff and landing, to a supersonic mode for long-distance flight. The concept, known as the “supersonic bi-directional flying wing” or SBiDir-FW, has attracted the attention of NASA, who has pledged $100,000 to help bring the concept to the wind-tunnel stage of testing and, assuming it works that far, another $500,000 for further testing and development.


The idea is that the plane will start its flight with the wider wings out. These wings have smaller winglets at the ends that, when lifted, will keep the plane in its subsonic orientation, and when lowered will cause the airflow around the plane to rotate it to the supersonic configuration without power. The engines will stay in the same direction, and presumably the pilot will now be flying sideways. Lifting the winglets again will switch the plane back to subsonic mode for landing.

The goal of the designers is to use this new design for passenger transport. A maximum speed of Mach 2 will allow the plane to carry 70 passengers across the United States in around two hours, or from New York to Tokyo in four. The project head, Ge-Chen Zha, thinks the design could also have military applications in the form of unmanned drones, which could very quickly get in and back out of a combat situation, while the supersonic mode is designed to have no sonic boom, allowing it to do so with a degree of stealth.

NASA’s funding of the aircraft is a part of its Innovative Advanced Concepts program, which hopes to find and develop radically different or entirely new ideas that will redefine the future of aerospace engineering.

Thomas Anderson

Thomas spends most of his day reading and complaining about people he sees on the Internet. He will gladly lecture you on useless trivia related to history, the English language, and Science Fiction. He considers himself Knoxville’s premier Discworld scholar. Thomas also reviews the cheapest novels he can find at his blog, Schlock Value.