Aurora's Boat That Flies Progresses Through Preliminary Testing

The Boeing subsidiary's Liberty Lifter X-plane could reinvent the seaplane.

The Liberty Lifter program aims to create an aircraft that can fly long distances while close to the ocean's surface, even in rough conditions.
The Liberty Lifter program aims to create an aircraft that can fly long distances while close to the ocean's surface, even in rough conditions.
Aurora Flight Sciences

Aurora Flight Sciences' X-plane work isn't limited to the X-65, the demonstrator aircraft that could change aviation as we know it. In another DARPA partnership, the Boeing subsidiary's Liberty Lifter X-plane is moving through Phase 1B of the agency's Liberty Lifter program, which seeks to design, build, float and fly an affordable X-plane with new heavy-air-lift capability from the sea. 

According to DARPA, the seaplane could transform logistics missions for the Department of Defense and commerce. The program aims to create an aircraft that can fly long distances while close to the ocean's surface, even in rough conditions, and lift off with payloads that exceed current seaplane limitations. The Lifter could also be used for search and rescue and disaster response at the scale of ships with the speed of air transport.

The end goal of Phase1B is preliminary design with a focus on testing for risk reduction. 

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Aurora is working with Oregon-based ReconCraft, a shipyard providing expertise in maritime manufacturing methods. The company will build full-scale structural test articles, including some of the fuselage.

The Aurora team has tested a scale model of the hull in the tow tank at Virginia Tech, which offers the unique ability to study the slamming of craft during landing. Subsequent testing will include flying sensors and software for wave detection and prediction, which feeds the X-plane's advanced control system for safely flying in ground effect over high sea states.

According to Monroe Aerospace, ground effect happens during landing and is caused by the air and pressure distortions between the airplane's wings and the ground or water. It increases the plane's lift and decreases the craft's drag. 

In the latest iteration, Aurora's design changed the Liberty Lifter from a t-tail to a pi-tail, which is more structurally efficient when accommodating an aft cargo door, according to the company. Additionally, the floats were moved from the side-sponsons to the vehicle's wing tips, which creates a better balance between vehicle affordability and performance in ground effect.

The Liberty Lifter aims to create an aircraft that can lift off with payloads that exceed current seaplane limitations.The Liberty Lifter aims to create an aircraft that can lift off with payloads that exceed current seaplane limitations.Aurora Flight Sciences

Aurora's team also includes naval architecture and marine engineering company Gibbs & Cox, a Leidos company, which plays a critical role as the X-plane is, in many ways, a boat that flies, according to the company.

Several Boeing advisors and engineers are also working with the team. Boeing has a long history in seaplanes and flying boats.

Phase 1B will conclude with a preliminary design review scheduled for January 2025. If the program continues, flight testing will begin in 2028.

David Mantey is the editorial director of digital media at IEN. With more than 15 years of experience in the design engineering and manufacturing space, he is responsible for creating and coordinating digital and multimedia content across the Industrial Media portfolio.

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