The August issue of Aerospace America magazine (published by the AIAA) has a cover picture of a flying scale model (designated the X-48B) of an experimental blended wing aircraft that may be the future of commercial air travel. Preliminary aerospace research on the blended wing concept indicates such a design could offer reduced fuel consumption, noise and emissions while carrying a larger payload than conventional “tube-and-wing” designs. Not a full flying wing, like the B-2 bomber, but also not a classic tube and wing design, the blended wing could provide up to 40% decrease in fuel consumption while carrying the same payload. These are significant savings, especially in the commercial airline world where every increase in aviation fuel directly impacts the airline’s bottom line.
The 8.5% scale model X-48B being flight tested by NASA was built by the Boeing Phantom works. It is suppose to replicate the aerodynamic and flying characteristics of a full-scale aircraft that would have a wingspan of about 240 feet. This scale remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) is powered by three JetCat engines producing 55 lbs. of thrust. JetCat is a German company that makes engines for radio-controlled aircraft flown by hobbyists.
The X-48B program is just the first early step of a long developmental program, and Boeing doesn’t see a blended wing flying commercially for at least 20 years. One potential drawback for its use as a people-carrying aircraft seems pretty basic: where do you put the windows for the passengers? If you look at the cross section of a proposed blended wing airliner, you can see that many people would not be sitting near a window. This could cause some people to hesitate to fly in a blended wing airliner. One possible solution could be external cameras sending real-time video of the scenery outside to a screen at each seat. Not exactly the same as looking out a window, but maybe enough to keep most people from becoming claustrophobic. This potential drawback for carrying passengers should not pose any problem if the blended wing is used to carry cargo. In fact, this is probably where we will see the first real use of a blended wing aircraft. The large payload capacity combined with its high fuel efficiency would be very appealing to the big package carriers. It may turn out that the first full-scale blended wing airplanes we see flying will be sporting the FedEx or UPS logos. If they are successful, it will probably not be long after that we see the major airlines seriously consider the blended wing concept for passenger travel.