The Magma UAV is being used to test fly a series of flapless flight technologies—such as fluidic thrust vectoring—that will help inform the development of next-gen, high-performance, adaptable air vehicles without the need for conventional control surfaces. (Source: BAE Systems)

Disruptive flight control technology on trial

A joint project between Manchester University in the U.K. and BAE Systems has seen the successful completion of the first phase of flight trials with a small unmanned air vehicle, Magma, that featured its conventional aircraft controls and their associated complex moving parts replaced by a unique blown-air system to maneuver the aircraft.

It is seen as paving the way for future stealthier aircraft designs and opening up new possibilities in control for next-generation airplanes. The new concept would not only simplify the design of the air vehicle but would reduce weight and maintenance costs allowing for lighter, stealthier, faster, and more efficient military and civil aircraft in the future—a truly radical step in aviation technology.

The two technologies that have been flight tested using the jet-powered Magma platform aircraft are wing circulation control and fluid thrust vectoring. Wing circulation control takes air from the aircraft engine and blows it supersonically through the trailing edge of the wing to provide control. The fluid thrust vectoring also uses blown air to deflect the exhaust allowing aircraft direction to change.

“These trials are an important step forward in our efforts to explore adaptable airframes and what we are seeking to do through this program is truly ground-breaking,” said Bill Crowther, Magma Project leader and a senior academic at MU.

The flight trials are part of an extended R&D project between MU and BAE and also a wider long-term collaboration between industry, academia, and government to explore and develop innovative flight control technology. More flight trials are planned over the coming months to demonstrate the novel flight control technology and the ultimate aim is to fly the aircraft without any moving control surfaces or fins. These tests demonstrate the first ever use of such circulation control in flight on a jet aircraft and from a single engine.

“The technologies we are developing with MU will make it possible to design cheaper, higher performance, next-generation aircraft," said Clyde Warsop, Engineering Fellow at BAE Systems. “Our investment in R&D is driving continued technological improvements in our military aircraft and this is helping to ensure we retain the skills to design and build the aircraft of the future.”

Among the other collaborative partners in this work involving additional technologies to improve the performance of the UAV are the University of Arizona and the NATO Science and Technology Organization.

Military aircraft designers and their sponsors are increasingly looking at stealthy aircraft to fulfil future operational needs. By minimizing their radar signatures they maximize their chances of surviving in future combat conditions where a combination of long-range missiles and advanced radar systems is making conventional non-stealthy aircraft potentially vulnerable. As the U.S. Navy is showing, even support aircraft, such as air refuelling tankers, can be vulnerable, not just combat jets, and so stealthy unmanned aircraft are being regarded increasingly as essential military air assets, and are being given more attention and industry investment.

If the Magma flight trials show convincing evidence that these new methods of control can replace even the latest current fly-by-wire control systems with a safe and robust alternative, then the combination of stealth with new control features could eventually change the way all future military aircraft are designed and built.

The implications for future next-generation commercial transport aircraft are also important. When fly-by-wire controls were introduced, with electrical cabling and electrically powered motors replacing mechanical rods and cranks, the movement of the flaps, ailerons, air-brakes, and other moving airframe parts still required complex and comparatively heavy geared or hydraulically operated units for movement.

If the intricate internal arrangements for controlling all these moving airframe components could be eliminated, then great weight savings will be possible along with the elimination of much maintenance. A reduction in these features will have the additional benefit on a military aircraft of further reducing the radar returns as there will be less airframe sealing and masking to be undertaken. A much simpler airframe will have a cleaner aerodynamic performance with corresponding speed and maneuverability improvements.

This is still early days for the project, but it has already shown the concept to be viable and it now remains to be seen where it will go from here.

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