I don’t really remember when I first saw the blended wing body (BWB) design. It was some time in 2001 and I was pretty pumped to see Boeing, NASA, et al taking chances. It is always engrossing when there’s a big shift in aircraft design. The blended wing body design concept wasn’t new, but this pass was for something for more ubiquitous than the SR-71, the B-2 and multitudes of nefarious drone / UAV candidates.
Pioneering aviation is interesting that way. We get great starts to projects. Even commercial noises. Before too long a picture like the one above gets published.
But without a major underwriter of risk (i.e. who will pay for this all new concept, material science application and lengthy certification process?) manufacturers of aircraft will tend to modify last year’s stuff to be a bit better for next year.
When such a reality turns up, design engineers get repurposed onto the marching orders du jour—make it efficient, minimize development risk, and carry on.
In the early 2000’s the much chatted about “7E7” became the 787. Despite a less risky design (conventional tube with wings) the reality was that an all electric airplane was still a big step.
Everything would be electric and there would be no “bleed air” for pressurization or de-ice (hot “bleed air” from engines).
At the time, many of us felt this was a smarter than Airbus’ aspirations. (To build a really big double decker that could go to less than 40 airports on the planet.) The calculated gamble was that the airlines sought something that was not much bigger than current twin aisle options—it would just do it more efficiently. Boeing got it right and Airbus (in the case of the A380) got it wrong.
Yet this left many of our childlike needs for cool stuff unsatisfied. A double decker wasn’t that cool, and while the all electric 787 was interesting from an engineering perspective, it wasn’t a major design leap in how things fly.
Yet today we have FaceTime available nearly everywhere. I get a sandwich through an app. My iPad (with Foreflight) will fly the airplane in case I’m feeling even lazier than normal.
Yet airplanes look the same as they did in 1950.
Why is the aviation sector different than so many others? Why the lag?
The answer is two-fold: We’ve got it pretty good, and dramatically new prototypes and technological disrupters (that fly) require some form of a sugar daddy.
How Good We Got It
One place to start is looking at how contemporary human civilization is easily placated with cheap travel. You might say we are content with how great “now” is. It is, after all, pretty darn good looking back comparatively to the past 200 years.
We live in an era, where the average ticket price can’t go any lower. Not without knee cap padding and putting the crew on food stamps. We have arrived at the flat part of the long tail of the commoditized air fare. Despite newsworthy agita, we are the luckiest travelers in the era of air travel.
A colleague of mine, Jeff Smith, also makes it clear how self inflicted our airline malaise is:
“It’s our fault the experience is such shit. We refuse to pay for it.”
Not only do we refuse to pay, but we also (through our governments and corporations) refuse to be risk sharing partners in new design that would actually make it cheaper. So when you hear the words “new Boeing 797” that is why it looks like this:
This “same old / same old” image is partly due to the fact that we refuse to pay a nickel more than we have to and … we already have it pretty good. Because of this intransigence, airlines look to remove the tomato from our first class salad or, in some cases, passengers that are already seated and think they are going home. Or think of it this way:
Cost containment is only happening inside an admittedly aging technology framework.
Either way this is all somewhat of a challenge for those of us dreaming of blended wing body designs and the advancement of the human race towards elegant biomimicry.
And yet if we want to spend so much less, be so much freer to travel, why do our overlords eschew better design?
For clarity on this subject, consider Richard Aboulafia’s statement on the success of Honda vs. the vapor ware of Silicon Valley:
“What it really takes to launch a new aircraft in today’s world is not a startup modeled on Silicon Valley but a well-staffed cash-bleeding offshoot of a much larger and very rich company.”
Whether that is Honda or Uncle Sam, the dynamic is the same.
DaVinci needed a patron to get his art done. And Boeing and friends are no different. Even the game changing and venerable Boeing 707 began with a military sponsor. It is no secret that the KC 135 Stratotanker is the Boeing 707. All of that tooling and design was translated to create a passenger airliner known as the Dash 80 which the marketing people quickly renamed the Boeing 707 after Tex Johnston did a barrel role over Seattle in August 1955.
The better blended wing design has no such patron presently, and until it does, we will be riding on the tube and wings things awhile longer.
But What If There Was?
Since laying out cash years ahead of a any profit is only for those with a strong constitution, we must envision who would get behind “the way better design looks.”
This comes down to find your sponsor, your patron. The answer might be that the design needs a company like Honda that will spend a decade or more without any return. Or a military contract that demands a big blended wing body design for air to air refueling, rapid troop movement or, maybe an all new Air Force One that has a hockey rink onboard.
NASA and others think it will look something like this:
When the body of your flying machine also creates lift, great things happen. And better yet, your carrying capacity, when there is no clear demarcation point between wing and body is staggering.
But when it comes to the blended wing body design, all is not simple.
The design challenge in pressurizing something that isn’t shaped like a sausage is tough. But composites and other material science show promise to make this possible.
Also, in an emergency, getting people to deplane in a timely fashion is tough when you aren’t in a giant tube where you move linearly to the nearest exit. The giant flying wedge, a calzone of people, is tough to design for rapid passenger egress. That and the FAA isn’t wild about the engines becoming dislodged in an accident, and tumbling into the passenger compartment.
And all of these impediments bring us back to why evolution is rarely on a linear time path.
Biologists and geologists know that things evolve in fits and starts. Long periods of not much change, and then suddenly a big shift in design for fish, reptiles and mammals. The occasional volcano or asteriod certainly helps, but it isn’t always necessary. In the case of human civilization, the 30% efficiency seems like a big juicy number. But the big gain is not enough for speculative investors without the cavernous pockets of the sponsor to put the time and money in.
As a great concept, it will remain on the shelf, as a theoretical future possibility until the right planetary event comes along to create the need.
Speaking of planetary events, think about the beauty, elegance and millions of years of practice, retry, redo, self selection to get this shape: (symbiotic companion aircraft not included)
Biomimicry is a great aide to some larger technical questions. Thankfully we’ve reached a time in our CAD programs, material science and DARPA prototypes to know that in the case of the bird or the manta ray – the clues are there. Nature has many iterations to show you that you simply want to have that wing mush more gradually into that body. And so long as you have a body, why not enlist it in a little lift?
The solace we can take is that ultimately this will be the shape. The benefit of understanding and appreciating biomimicry, patrons and technical challenges is that the iterative design process has been done and when it comes to flying machines, it will be validated and done again.
1 A great example is the Pratt Whitney PT 6: It didn’t recover its R&D costs until nearly 20 years of continuous production and sales.