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JetZero: Is this innovative plane the wave of the future?

The fundamental configuration of commercial aircraft has remained relatively unchanged over the course of the last six decades. Contemporary commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 exhibit a comparable overall structure to their predecessors, namely the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, which were manufactured during the latter part of the 1950s and established the enduring “tube and wing” design paradigm that continues to be employed presently.

The rationale behind this lies in the emphasis on safety within the realm of commercial aviation, which leads to a preference for established and proven solutions. Additionally, advancements in materials and engines have contributed to the continued relevance of the conventional design.

Nevertheless, the industry encounters a comparatively more arduous task in its pursuit of carbon emission reduction, mostly due to the inherent difficulty of transitioning away from its established core technology. The present moment may be opportune to explore novel approaches.

One potential solution that has been suggested is the concept of the “blended wing body.” The novel aircraft configuration bears resemblance to the “flying wing” concept employed in military aviation, notably exemplified by the renowned B-2 bomber. However, the blended wing design distinguishes itself by featuring a greater volumetric capacity in its central region. Both Boeing and Airbus are currently exploring the concept, as well as a third participant, JetZero, a California-based company, which has set an ambitious target of introducing a blended wing aircraft into commercial operation by the year 2030.

According to Tom O’Leary, the co-founder and CEO of JetZero, there is a strong conviction regarding the pursuit of achieving zero emissions in large aircraft. O’Leary asserts that the implementation of blended wing airframes can result in a significant reduction of 50% in both fuel consumption and emissions. This represents a significant advancement as compared to the industry’s customary standards.

Under pressure

The blended wing concept has a long history, with the earliest endeavors to construct aircrafts utilizing this design tracing back to the late 1920s in Germany. The jet-powered flying wing concept developed by Jack Northrop, an American aircraft designer and manufacturer, in 1947 served as a source of inspiration for the development of the B-2 aircraft in the 1990s.

The blended wing, which combines features of a flying wing with a typical “tube and wing” design, enables the entire aircraft to produce lift while reducing drag. According to NASA, this particular form enhances fuel efficiency and facilitates the creation of more spacious payload spaces for freight or passengers in the central section of the aircraft. The experimental aircraft, known as the X-48, was utilized by the government for testing purposes.

Between the years 2007 and 2012, a total of around 120 test flights were conducted to evaluate the feasibility of the concept using two unmanned, remote-controlled X-48 aircraft. According to the agency, an aircraft of this nature would possess a wingspan marginally larger than that of a Boeing 747 and would be capable of functioning from currently established airport terminals. Additionally, the agency asserts that this aircraft would exhibit reduced weight, noise, and emissions, while also incurring lower operational costs compared to an equivalently advanced conventional transport aircraft.

In the year 2020, Airbus successfully constructed a compact blended wing demonstrator, measuring approximately six feet in length. This development serves as an indication of Airbus’ inclination towards the potential realization of a full-scale aircraft in subsequent endeavors. However, despite the apparent effectiveness of the shape, the adoption of aircraft designs based on it has not yet occurred.

O’Leary contends that manufacturers are hindered by a primary technical obstacle. The individual asserts that the pressurization of a fuselage that is not cylindrical is a contributing factor. This observation highlights the superior ability of a tube-shaped aircraft to withstand the repetitive expansion and contraction cycles associated with each flight.

The concept of a “tube and wing” configuration involves the division of loads, with the tube bearing the pressurization stress and the wings bearing the bending loads. However, a blended wing design effectively combines these elements. The utilization of lightweight and robust composite materials has only recently enabled us to achieve such capability.

The adoption of such a significantly innovative design would result in a notable transformation of the inside of the aircraft, leading to a distinct departure from the current widebody aircraft experience. According to O’Leary, the fuselage is significantly wider in size. The conventional configuration of a single-aisle aircraft typically consists of three seats arranged in a three by three formation. However, the aircraft in question can be described as a comparatively shorter and wider cylindrical structure. The number of individuals remains constant, while the number of rows throughout the cabin may vary between 15 and 20, contingent upon the specific configuration adopted by each respective airline.

This provides them with a fresh range of options to arrange it. The anticipation of witnessing their interpretation of this significantly expanded domain is expected to be remarkable.

Innovative potential

According to O’Leary, the closest comparable aircraft in terms of size would be the Boeing 767, which is a widebody, twin-engine aircraft that was first deployed in the 1980s and normally accommodated approximately 210 passengers. The aircraft in question continues to be manufactured for cargo purposes, however, it has been superseded by the Boeing 787 for passenger transportation. Additionally, a contemporary military iteration known as the KC-46 is employed by the United States Air Force for the purpose of aerial refueling.

In a similar vein, JetZero aims to concurrently pursue the development of three distinct iterations, namely a passenger aircraft, a cargo aircraft, and a gasoline tanker. The blended wing configuration has such favorable characteristics that the United States Air Force has recently granted JetZero a substantial funding of $235 million. This financial support aims to facilitate the development of a fully functional prototype and to substantiate the efficacy of the blended wing design. The inaugural flight is anticipated to occur in 2027, signifying that the military variant of the aircraft is slated to take the lead and potentially facilitate the advancement of the commercial iterations.

Nevertheless, the endeavor of constructing a completely novel aircraft from the ground up is a formidable undertaking. Considering the extensive duration required for the certification procedure of even a modified version of an existing airplane, JetZero’s objectives appear to be ambitious. JetZero possesses a notable advantage in this domain as it intends to utilize engines from existing narrow body aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, during its initial phase. However, the ultimate objective is to transition to a propulsion system that operates entirely on hydrogen, thereby achieving emission-free flight. This transition necessitates the development of novel engines that are currently under exploration.

JetZero currently does not own any confirmed orders for their aircraft. However, O’Leary asserts that there is a notable level of interest from many carriers. We are currently engaging in discussions with numerous prominent airlines on a global scale, since they have expressed keen interest in learning about the potential efficiency improvements.

The feasibility of achieving a 50% reduction in fuel use has yet to be determined. Both NASA and Airbus have provided a more conservative estimate of a 20% improvement for their respective designs. Conversely, the US Air Force claims that a blended wing aircraft has the potential to enhance aerodynamic efficiency by a minimum of 30% compared to existing Air Force tanker and mobility aircraft.

According to Bailey Miles, an aviation expert with consultancy firm AviationValues, it is crucial to acknowledge that the potential advantages of a blended wing body in terms of drag reduction and enhanced fuel efficiency are contingent upon the particular design, configuration, and operational circumstances.

Extensive aerodynamic testing and optimization play a crucial role in fully harnessing the drag reduction potential of this unique aircraft design. According to the individual, accurately quantifying the extent of fuel savings would be a challenge in the absence of requisite testing procedures.

According to Miles (year), the blended wing design is considered a groundbreaking concept with promising prospects. However, it presents several obstacles, including heightened aerodynamic intricacy that can complicate the design and testing processes, a range of regulatory and certification hurdles, and a shape that may not align with current airport infrastructure.

The blended wing body aircraft exhibits significant potential as a transformative element within the aviation sector, presenting opportunities for higher fuel efficiency, increased payload capacity, and novel control systems. Nevertheless, the individual asserts that the accomplishment of JetZero’s vision faces significant obstacles related to aerodynamic intricacies, structural robustness, compliance with regulations, and the necessary modifications to airport infrastructure. These formidable challenges, alongside others, render the company’s goal of commencing operations by 2030 implausible.

As per Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst affiliated with the consulting firm Aerodynamic Advisory, it should be noted that although the veracity of all of JetZero’s assertions cannot be substantiated, the concept of a blended wing body has garnered significant interest over the years, and it appears that the company has conducted noteworthy research in this area. My colleagues and I consider it to be highly promising.

The individual expresses apprehension regarding the current state of the firm, characterizing it mostly as a “design shop.” However, they hold the belief that engaging contractors could potentially facilitate the success and advancement of the project. According to his statement, there is ample opportunity for individuals who are genuinely interested in contributing value inside this particular market.

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