Aerospace Design and Structures

Future flight designs, from supersonic to urban air mobility, becoming reality

The Design Engineering Technical Committee promotes the development and dissemination of technologies that assist design engineers in defining practical aerospace products.

This year saw significant advancements in research and commercial designs to bring supersonic flight back to commercial service. With the X-59 supersonic demonstrator developed under its Quesst program, NASA plans to test design technologies to allow supersonic flight over land. Boom Supersonic is taking a commercial approach with its Overture jet to help solve the noise, speed and cost challenges that kept the Concorde airliners from being a success. A common design feature with Overture and X-59 is that the highly swept and smooth fuselages require synthetic vision for the pilot to safely fly the aircraft. 

Following completion of assembly in 2021, X-59 underwent ground testing January through April at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas, completing another major milestone toward its first flight, scheduled for early 2023. Low-speed wind tunnel tests in July, conducted at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works’ Palmdale, California, facility, advanced the X-59 flight control systems development by providing data to calibrate computational fluid dynamics predictions. 

Boom Supersonic revealed in July the updated Overture design and announced partnerships with the U.S. Air Force and Northrop Grumman. In August, American Airlines announced a purchase agreement  and initial deposit for 20 Overtures. The undermounted four-engine, gull wing, net-zero carbon emissions aircraft is designed for a top speed of Mach 1.7. In addition to the Overture announcements, Boom Supersonic pushed forward this year toward first flight of its XB-1 high-speed flight demonstrator by completing ground vibration testing in June and high nose testing (simulated takeoff and landing angle) in August. 

The growing electric vertical takeoff and landing industry is developing a variety of interesting design approaches to satisfy future urban air mobility goals. Germany-based Volocopter’s VoloRegion aircraft, which combines a fixed-wing design with two propulsion fans and six electrically driven vertical lift rotors, performed its first flight in May. With this accomplishment, Volocopter’s three eVTOLs are all in the flight test phase of development. The VoloRegion is designed to fly a range of 96 kilometers and at a top speed of 249 kph. 

From Munich, Lilium announced in May that its Phoenix 2 aircraft demonstrator completed main wing transition, demonstrating the ability to transition from hover to wingborne flight. This transition is central to the success of the tilted wing, ducted electric vectored thrust concept. Lilium first began flight testing Phoenix 2 in Spain earlier this year. 

Demonstrating a third unique eVTOL design approach, Zeva Aero’s ZERO employs a flying wing fuselage combined with eight electric-motor-powered rotors. ZERO completed its first untethered flights in this configuration in January in Pierce County, Washington. The flight test was the first in a series toward receiving FAA airworthiness certification.

Engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia this year completed the design and ground testing of LOFTID, the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator. The craft was launched in November as a secondary payload aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V and tested a new reentry method. LOFTID’s design innovatively addresses several challenges. The hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator can be deployed to a diameter much larger than the launch vehicle’s shroud, enabling a variety of proposed NASA missions to destinations including Mars, Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan, as well as a new technique for returning spacecraft to Earth. LOFTID’s large deployable aeroshell — an inflatable structure protected by a flexible heat shield — acts as a giant brake as it traverses the atmosphere, enabling the delivery of much heavier payloads in atmospheres less dense than that of Earth.  

Future flight designs, from supersonic to urban air mobility, becoming reality