Fri. Jul 19th, 2024

Introducing the Pathfinder: A Blended-Wing Aircraft with Zero Carbon Emissions

Airplane without gas emission

There are already concepts like zero-emission electric aircraft, supersonic jets, and even hypersonic ones. But the latest example of these new plane types is “Pathfinder” — a stealth bomber-looking jet designed by the California-based aerospace company JetZero.

The twinjet features a unique “blended-wing body,” or BWB, a design where the wing and fuselage are combined into one.

After years of development, JetZero has built a 1:8 demonstrator, and the Federal Aviation Administration just gave the funky-shaped craft the green light to fly, CNN reported on Thursday.

JetZero confirmed the news to Business Insider, saying “flights will start in the coming months” to test the “stability and control characteristics of JetZero’s blended wing body design, as well as the operation of its innovative landing gear system.”

The FAA told BI on Thursday that it “does not comment on ongoing certification projects” and that “safety will dictate the timeline.”

JetZero is building a single-deck, very widebody airliner

JetZero touts its future very widebody airliner as a “middle market” passenger airliner with space for up to 250 people, meaning its rows could stretch 15 or 20 seats across, JetZero cofounder and CEO Tom O’Leary told CNN.

The jet would be a replacement option for traditional twin-engine widebodies like the Boeing 767, for example, according to JetZero.

“The jetliner can fit seamlessly into today’s infrastructure,” the company told BI. “Passenger capacity of a small widebody but the weight, and engine requirement, of a single-aisle jet.”

Pathfinder also has military applications, with the US Air Force awarding $235 million to JetZero in August to develop a commercial-scale demonstrator, which JetZero told BI it plans to build by 2027.

The company said it expects the certified airliner to enter the market as soon as 2030, which aviation analyst Bailey Miles at consulting firm AviationValues told CNN is “inconceivable” considering the complexities of the BWB design.

Still, he said the concept “holds immense promise as a game changer in the aviation industry.”

The blended-wing body significantly reduces fuel burn but will face design challenges

JetZero said it chose this specific BWB design due to its carbon-reducing benefits.

According to the US Air Force, the all-in-one wing reduces drag by 30% and increases lift — effectively reducing fuel burn and increasing global reach.

Moreover, JetZero said the engines will eventually be developed to run on hydrogen, which would be zero-emissions. In the interim, initial versions of Pathfinder would boast 50% less fuel burn using borrowed engines, like those from the Boeing 737, CNN reported.

University of Illinois aerospace professor Michael Bragg told Business Insider that the development of lighter yet still strong composite materials is key to reducing fuel burn on BWB aircraft designs such as Pathfinder.

He also said that engineers have distributed the load across the entire aircraft, which negates the “bending moment” between the tube and wings on a traditional airplane. The composite technology makes this new load bearing possible, Bragg told BI.

Despite Pathfinder’s sound design on paper, Bragg said proving and certifying a brand-new aircraft concept is much more challenging than developing a traditionally shaped jetliner.

“The product is essentially a new airframe and flight controls married to existing systems already certified for commercial flight,” JetZero told BI.

The classic tube-and-wing plane design dates back to the 1950s dawn of the jet age on aircraft like the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 and has continued to today on modern widebodies like the Airbus A350 and the future Boeing 777X.

Such time-tested technology has a successful track record, so there has been little incentive to change the conventional aircraft design over the decades as using proven technology minimizes safety risks and is easier for production, Bragg said.

“A lot of that is because of manufacturing,” he said. “It’s easy to manufacture a tube, and, although not as easy, it’s a well-known process of how to build the wings to attach.”

Beyond the assembly line, Bragg told BI that JetZero must ensure passengers are comfortable inside Pathfinder’s unique shape.

For example, he told BI the pressurization inside the plane — which is what helps humans breathe at high altitudes — is difficult to design in the very widebody structure. And most of those 200+ passengers would be in the middle section without a window, which Bragg told BI could put off travelers.

JetZero says on its website that its cabin is more efficient for boarding and deplaning, and will have space for every person’s cabin luggage.

Pathfinder is 100 years in the making

JetZero’s Pathfinder is poised to be a groundbreaking technology should it ever hit the market, but it’s not a new idea.

Engineers were reported by CNN to have crafted a similar blended-wing shape some 100 years ago. Later, American aircraft industrialist and designer Jack Northrop built his famous “Flying Wing” aircraft in the 1940s, laying the framework for the eventual B-2 bomber.

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