April 23, 2024

Take a seat in a Boeing 737 and look out of the window. You will likely see the wing sticking out of the aircraft’s body, partially blocking your view of what’s below.

NASA has announced today that they will work with Boeing to create a new experimental aircraft demonstrator which looks completely different from the jets passengers use. The aircraft will have long, thin wings extending above the fuselage windows and not below. These wings, which are longer and narrower than those on typical commercial aircraft, will be supported by trusses.

This new plane will be named the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator. Its purpose is to find a way of making the aircraft more environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient. NASA aims for a 30 percent improvement in efficiency. However, this dramatic increase wouldn’t be possible with just new wings.

NASA’s deputy administrator, Pamela Melroy, announced the initiative today at a Washington, DC, press conference. She described it as a “major NASA commitment to reduce carbon emissions in the aviation system,” which she called “one of the most difficult industries to decarbonize.”

The aircraft will also have two engines, one under each wing, and a tail at the back shaped in a T. This will not be a widebody aircraft with two aisles like a Boeing 787 or A350. This plane is designed to serve typical commercial flights, such as those connecting New York City and Chicago.

The wing is the star of the show.

Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, told the audience that “we’re going reduce fuel consumption by up to 30 percent with better engines. And look at this wing.” The wing “is so long and thin that it needs a brace.”

The braces or trusses can perform another trick in addition to supporting the wings –, which gives an aircraft the lift needed to fly. Nelson said, “You can get lift from this brace and the wings, like the old concept in the old biplanes.”

It’s all about compromises in aircraft engineering: The wings of this experimental plane are long and thin for a reason, but the trusses that support them must be strong enough to hold up the branches. He said, “We plan to demonstrate that this extra-long, thin wing — stabilized by the braces — will make commercial aircraft much more fuel-efficient by creating less drag.”

Technically, the plane is called a TTBW (Transonic Truss Braced Wing). Popular Science examined NASA’s efforts in May 2020. Aerospace engineers claim that long, slender wings reduce drag by reducing vortices near the wing tip. Kevin James, a NASA senior aerospace engineer, explained the situation at the time as follows: “Out on the tip of the wings, where the air cannot see any more wing than what it can see, it is very clever and will just go around the tips,” he said. By making the wings larger, “we can generate more lift, more efficiently.”

The disadvantages of this configuration include that the long, narrow wings could flap in strong winds like a bridge or a sign. This is why planes with these wings need to be equipped with trusses. If aircraft of this type replace narrowbody planes such as 737s at airports, their long wings may make it difficult to get them through the gates.

NASA announced today that Boeing will bring this new, fuel-efficient bird into service by 2028.

Reports that the International Energy Agency estimates that aviation will account for more than 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2021. There are many ways to make aircraft more environmentally friendly, such as using smaller aircraft on pure electric power or sustainably sourced aviation fuel. Melroy stated at the start of the event that he was still concerned about the carbon impact of air travel around the world. “The aviation industry is a major player in the global economy, and we must take this seriously.”

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