DARPA is building X-plane demonstrator without moving parts

The test aircraft used active flow control to generate control forces in a wind tunnel test. 
Loukia Papadopoulos
The DARPA X-plane demonstrator.jpg
The DARPA X-plane demonstrator.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has chosen Aurora Flight Sciences for the detailed design phase of its Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program, according to a press release by the organization published on Tuesday.

Generating control in a wind tunnel test

The decision comes after the successful completion of the project’s Phase 1 preliminary design, which resulted in an innovative testbed aircraft that used active flow control (AFC) to generate control forces in a wind tunnel test. 

The project has now moved to Phase 2, which will focus on the detailed design and development of flight software and controls. This phase will also culminate in a critical design review of an X-plane demonstrator that can fly without traditional moving flight controls on the exterior of the wings and tail.

Finally, the contract includes a Phase 3 option in which DARPA intends to fly a 7,000-pound X-plane that addresses the two primary technical hurdles of incorporation of AFC into a full-scale aircraft and reliance on it for controlled flight. The demonstrator aircraft will boast some unique features that include modular wing configurations, enabling future integration of advanced technologies for flight testing either by DARPA or potential transition partners.

DARPA is building X-plane demonstrator without moving parts


“Over the past several decades, the active flow control community has made significant advancements that enable the integration of active flow control technologies into advanced aircraft. We are confident about completing the design and flight test of a demonstration aircraft with AFC as the primary design consideration,” said the CRANE Program Manager Richard Wlezien. 

“With a modular wing section and modular AFC effectors, the CRANE X-plane has the potential to live on as a national test asset long after the CRANE program has concluded.”

Opportunities for aircraft performance improvements

The plane's notable AFC suite of technologies allows for multiple opportunities for aircraft performance improvements. These include but are not limited to the elimination of moving control surfaces, drag reduction and high angle of attack flight, thicker wings for structural efficiency and increased fuel capacity, and simplified high-lift systems.

“Thanks to a variety of innovative participants, the CRANE program has significantly advanced the state of the art of multiple active flow control technologies,” said Wlezien. 

“We are uniquely positioned to build on those achievements by evaluating a wide range of relevant technologies during our planned X-plane flight tests.”

The Experimental Spaceplane XS-1 program

In May 2017, DARPA revealed that The Boeing Company was their chosen firm to deliver the advanced design of the Agency's Experimental Spaceplane XS-1 program. The program intended to build and fly a novel class of hypersonic aircraft to reinforce national security by offering short-notice and low-cost access to space.

DARPA's program manager, Jess Sponable, said at the time: "We’re very pleased with Boeing’s progress on the XS-1 through Phase 1 of the program and look forward to continuing our close collaboration in this newly funded progression to Phases 2 and 3—fabrication and flight".

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