In 2008 NASA commissioned six teams of aerospace engineers to gaze a quarter century into the future and design the commercial planes of 2035. This year those visions came into focus.
Four groups—based at MIT, Boeing, GE, and Northrup Grumman—tackled NASA’s challenge to improve subsonic flight, in which the agency asked for aircraft designs that burn 70 percent less fuel and create less noise than existing planes. Most of the efficiency gains come from a combination of lighter, more aerodynamic shapes and slight reductions in flying speed. The additional travel time could be offset by improving passenger loading and taxiing schedules at both ends of the ride, the engineers claim.
MIT’s “double bubble” design, pictured above, features an extrawide body of two side-by-side cylinders. “It’s like two soap bubbles stuck together,” says lead designer Mark Drela, an aerodynamicist at MIT. With two aisles and a cabin shaped more like an auditorium than the conventional cramped tube, the double bubble would give the plane more lift while making it easier for passengers to enter and exit. Rear-mounted engines create a snowball effect of efficiency improvements: Pulling the engines out from under the plane’s wings allows for shorter landing gear, reducing weight and requiring less fuel, which lightens the craft even further.
Two other subsonic proposals targeted airport congestion. GE suggested (pdf) using small, 20-seat planes to shuttle passengers between local airports, while Northrup Grumman advocated (pdf) 120-person planes configured to use less runway space. Boeing’s engineers drew up (pdf) an electric hybrid airplane engine that uses fuel for takeoff and landing but cruises on batteries (included in the image below). In the supersonic category, Boeing and Lockheed Martin developed concept planes that are both fuel-stingy and quiet—a feat Boeing accomplished with a shape designed to control the sonic boom. Supersonic planes will never be as efficient as their slower companions, says Bob Welge, the Boeing team’s lead engineer, but “you could get from L.A. to Tokyo in about half the time.” And isn’t the future supposed to be fast?