It Is Good That Wackiness Is Alive In Aerospace

Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

October 15, 2012

There is a generation in aerospace and aviation that first became enthralled with the possibilities of flight in the 1960s. That was the twilight of an extraordinary era of innovation that had lasted a quarter of a century. It was era in which the world airspeed record rose fourfold, air travel went from the wreck of the Hindenburg in 1937 to the Concorde treaty in 1962, and rocketry from an eccentric hobby to the ultimate weapon. Where is the inspiration today for the airships, spaceplanes, tailsitters, flying cars and hypersonic gliders that fired our imagination?

Happily, we need to look not back to the 1950s, but to here in the 2010s, where these ideas are being actively pursued—mostly by companies that are far from household names. It might not be rife in Big Industry, but there is still a strong current of innovation in aerospace. This is particularly true in unmanned aircraft, where removing the size and safety constraints imposed by a human pilot has opened up the trade space and allowed designers to revisit unconventional concepts discarded decades ago as unworkable.

Take the dazzlingly weird Vought XF5U-1 “Flying Flapjack” of 1946, with its massive propellers and disc-like wing. This constituted an evolutionary dead-end until Aurora Flight Sciences revived the configuration for its Skate mini-UAV (both pictured above), scaled down to a hand-launched vehicle that snaps together from three slabs of plastic foam.

Or take the airship, which reached its zenith in the 1930s and has been extinct except as a novelty since the Beatles were playing Hamburg. Half a century later, the Pentagon-sponsored Aeros Pelican (see page 46) is something new: an airship that can change its buoyancy on demand, as a submarine does in water.

Some criticize this reinvention trend as unimaginative, but many of the innovations we applaud today in other industries are the repackaging of old ideas using new technologies. Through advances in materials, propulsion and electronics, aerospace has a similar opportunity—even obligation—to mine its past for ideas.

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