Will People Fly In This 'Blended Wing' Airplane? Airbus Built a Prototype To Find Out.

Caroline Delbert
Photo credit: Airbus

From Popular Mechanics

  • A new Airbus prototype is a blended wing aircraft that could be used for commercial flights.
  • Flying wings and blended wings date back 100 years and have mostly been for military use.
  • The MAVERIC prototype is a scale model that's 3 meters wide, ideal for testing and showing off.

Airbus has released a new prototype for a “giant flying wing” that could revolutionize commercial flight. The MAVERIC prototype is 2 meters long by 3 meters wide and flown by remote control. Airbus says its aerodynamic body reduces its emissions by 20 percent.

The prototype is a “small scale demonstrator,” like a scale model that can show both supporters and potential investors the strengths and weaknesses of the radical new design. But Airbus say it’s up to the same construction standards and precision as full size Airbus planes. A full-size MAVERIC would carry passengers in a “single aisle” seating arrangement, meaning it would be a narrow-body aircraft. Large airliners are wide-body aircrafts, by contrast.

Photo credit: Airbus / S. Ramadier

For airlines, the difference between narrow- and wide-body aircrafts is usually fuel economy. Having multiple aisles and many more seats requires larger crews and flights must sell many more seats to break even. If a narrow-body plane could make longer flights, as Airbus has said it wants to do, smaller crews and smaller minimum passengers could make it worthwhile. But that could also bring stricter weight limits and even tighter quarters inside more traditional single-aisle planes fitted for longer flights.

A radically new design like the MAVERIC could address all of these concerns. Airbus says its interior is roomier than in a conventional plane, with engine placement that reduces noise and also increases interior space. A true “flying wing” design would be even more minimal, exemplified by modern bombers like the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, which can carry 50 tons of fuel and just two crew members. The MAVERIC is a “blended wing,” which is still a tailless craft but has more interior room and a seamless transition from the cabin into the wings.

But a flying wing isn't without its drawbacks. A true flying wing has all kinds of stability and design challenges related to the lack of a tail, the distribution of weight, and even how “thick” the front end is because it’s where the only people or cargo have to sit. None of this is inherently bad or implausible—every form factor of airplane has limitations and challenges—but it's likely why Airbus is drumming up public support with a working concept scale model

The MAVERIC does have a little tail-like area, with vertical stabilizers similar to twin- or even multi-boom airplanes. These stabilizers help to counteract some phenomena in high-speed flight and when the plane turns. The tail overall helps a traditional airliner to stay stable in gusting wind. These variables will need to be fully, exhaustively solved by Airbus before a blended wing passenger plane could ever take off.

Photo credit: Airbus

“The development of demonstrators like MAVERIC enables Airbus to accelerate understanding of new aircraft configurations and to mature the technology necessary to fly such a radically different aircraft,” Airbus says in a statement. “One specific challenge was to assess the low-speed and stall dynamics. Future testing will analyze aspects such as MAVERIC’s handling qualities, flight control, multi-objective control surfaces and modularity.”

In other words, the company still needs to see how the aircraft performs in moments of flight failure with the absence of a traditional airplane’s ailerons, flaps, spoilers, elevators, and even a tail. It’s doable, but it will take some time, and saving 20 percent of emissions would be more than worth it.

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