While aviation engineers have long known that a “flying wing” aircraft would be more efficient than the traditional tubular fuselage aircraft we see today, the ability to control them in flight has prevented them from making any progress in commercialization.
Since aircraft need to take off and land, requiring control at both low speed and cruising speed, being twice as efficient at cruising speed is effectively worthless unless the aircraft can be controlled reliably at low speeds.
An engineering team at NASA has recently put together a scale prototype of a “hybrid wing” that combines the efficient body shape of a flying wing with the effective control surfaces of a traditional aircraft, and installed ultra-high bypass ratio engines to power it. The resulting combination, NASA is testing, could be twice as efficient as traditional aircraft as well as quieter, since the engines are mounted above the wing instead of below. The next version of the prototype, thirty feet wide, will be finished for testing by 2015.
While the technology itself may not make it to commercial or passenger use for another twenty years, there are a couple of innovations that might make it into production sooner. NASA’s new manufacturing process, when tested to failure, actually prevented cracks from spreading to the next section, which, in flight, could mean the difference between slight damage and total catastrophic failure. Additionally, the development of ulta-high bypass ratio engines, in which the intake is significantly larger than the compression and combustion zones, could make for more efficient aircraft, even with traditional body designs.