Several universities in the UK have teamed up with BAE Systems to build a remote-controlled plane which has no wing flaps and no pilot, according to the University of Leicester. Two prototypes of such flapless 'fluidic' planes have already been taken their first flights. And the 5-year FLAVIIR project (flapless air vehicle integrated industrial research) should be completed in 2009 with the arrival of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) cheaper than today's ones. Right now, the different teams are designing "the software that can autonomously fly the vehicle without collisions."
Before going further, here is a picture of an early prototype of such a plane. (Credit: BAE Systems news release, June 13, 2005)
Here are some excerpts from the University of Leicester news release.
A remote-controlled aeroplane packed with scientific know-how has recently had a test flight in the UK -- heralding a new generation of aircraft. The revolutionary model plane has been developed as part of a £6.2m programme, involving engineers from the University of Leicester, funded jointly by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and BAE Systems.
"The overall programme is aimed at developing new technologies for future generation uninhabited air vehicles, so called UAVs," said Professor Ian Postlethwaite, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Engineering at Leicester.
"The team involves experts from around the UK in Aerodynamics, Control Systems, Electromagnetics, Manufacturing, Materials and Structures, and Numerical Simulation. The results from the different groups will be brought together in a single flying demonstrator in about 2009. The concept of a flapless vehicle, using fluidic thrust vectoring (where direction is changed with a secondary air flow) and air jets, is one important area of investigation. Another is the replacement of the pilot by sophisticated software that can autonomously fly the vehicle without collisions in what might be dangerous or remote environments."
The illustration below shows the concept of fluidic thrust vectoring and how such a flapless plane flies. (Credit: NASA/Reuters/Manchester University)
This diagram comes from an article published by the Telegraph in October 2005 under the title "Fly without getting into a flap." Here are two links to the text version and to a PDF one (PDF format, 1 page, 192 KB).
Here is a prototype of such an UAV in a wind tunnel (Credit: FLAVIIR)
Control using blown air from the wing trailing edge is being investigated by Manchester. The basic principle is that blown air entrains the upper surface flow thus giving rise to an increase in lift. The trailing edge has to be modified to become rounded, but in general the thickness of a typical trailing edge does not have to be altered.
Besides the hardware and software developments, the different teams are also working on fault detection mechanisms "for use in a fault tolerant flight control system, which can automatically adapt for failures sustained during a mission thereby maintaining adequate flight performance and stability."
So do you feel ready for a pilotless flight?
Sources: University of Leicester news release, March 22, 2006; Roger Highfield, The Telegraph, October 11, 2005; and various web sites
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