Futuristic X-Plane Moves Closer to Test Flight

The aircraft won't have any external mechanical flight controls.

When Boeing bought Aurora Flight Sciences in 2017, the company was drawn to Aurora's work in the design and manufacture of advanced autonomous aerospace systems and technologies. 

Aurora, which specializes in robotic aircraft for future aerospace vehicles, operates as an independent subsidiary, primarily benefiting from Boeing's resources, according to the company. 

When it comes to futuristic, experimental aircraft, you don't have to look much further than Darpa X-planes, which literally stands for experimental planes. 

In mid-January, Darpa selected Aurora Flight Sciences for Phase 2 of an active flow control X-plane. The idea is to create and eventually fly a demonstrator aircraft without external mechanical flight controls. 

Conventional fixed-wing aircraft use flaps and tail rudders to move. Active flow control changes the shape of the wing to change the craft's aerodynamic flow.

By removing jointed surfaces that add weight and mechanical complexity to modern aircraft, active flow control will reduce drag and enable ultra-fast speeds. The X-plane will also have thicker wings for structural efficiency, increased fuel capacity and simplified high-lift systems. 

The move into Phase 2 follows Aurora's successful completion of the preliminary design in Phase 1 of the CRANE (Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors) program. In Phase 1, Aurora's engineers created a testbed aircraft that used active flow control to generate control forces in wind tunnel testing. In Phase 2, Aurora is charged with designing and developing flight software and controls. 

If all goes according to plan, Darpa can initiate a Phase 3 option that will culminate in the flight of a 7,000-pound demonstrator. The X-plane will hopefully prove that active flow control can be used in a full-scale aircraft and be used for a controlled flight. In addition, the demonstrator X-plane will likely have modular wings, so Darpa or other partners could test various configurations. For example, BAE Systems and Lockheed-Martin are also involved in the CRANE program. 

According to CRANE Program Manager Richard Wlezien, the modular wings and active flow control effectors give the X-plane the potential to live on as a national test asset long after the CRANE program is over. 

Aurora Flight Sciences recently broke ground in an expansion project at its Bridgeport, West Virginia facility. The project will double the company's footprint at the North Central West Virginia Airport, adding nearly 50,000 square feet. The company currently has some 200 employees but plans to double the workforce by 2028, if not sooner. 

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