‘Blown air’ trials herald aviation design revolution

Engineers from BAE Systems in Lancashire have played a major role in a technological breakthrough set to revolutionise the future of aviation design.

For the first time in the industry’s history, an aircraft has been manoeuvred in flight using supersonically blown air, removing the need for complex movable flight control surfaces. 

In a series of ground-breaking trials, the MAGMA unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) demonstrated two innovative flow control technologies.

MAGMA, designed and developed by researchers at The University of Manchester in collaboration with engineers from BAE Systems, successfully trialled the two ‘flap-free’ technologies earlier this month at the Llanbedr Airfield.

The technologies have been designed to improve the control and performance of aircraft. 

By replacing moving surfaces with a simpler ‘blown air’ solution, the trials have paved the way for engineers to create better performing aircraft that are lighter, more reliable and cheaper to operate. 

The technologies could also improve an aircraft’s stealth as they reduce the number of gaps and edges that currently make aircraft more observable on radar. 

The fluidic thrust vectoring exhaust and wing circulation control devices were manufactured using the latest additive manufacturing capabilities at the company’s Samlesbury site.

MAGMA is a great example of how collaborating with British universities can deliver ground-breaking research.

BAE Systems says developments like these will help ensure the UK has the right technologies and skills in place for the future and could be applied to the development of a Future Combat Air System by its Team Tempest project.

It is the latest technological breakthrough to come from a number of BAE Systems collaborations with academia and industry.

Julia Sutcliffe, chief technologist, BAE Systems Air, said: “MAGMA is a great example of how collaborating with bright minds at British universities can deliver ground-breaking research and innovation. 

“Our partnership with The University of Manchester has identified cutting-edge technology, in this case flap-free flight, and turned what began as a feasibility study into a proven capability in just a number of months. 

“It demonstrates how STEM can be applied in the real-world and I hope the success of these trials inspires the next generation of much-needed engineers and scientists.”

Bill Crowther, senior academic and leader of the MAGMA project at Manchester, added: “We are excited to have been part of a long-standing effort to change the way in which aircraft can be controlled, going all the way back to the invention of wing warping by the Wright brothers.” 

The technologies demonstrated in the trials were:

  • Wing Circulation Control: Taking air from the aircraft engine and blowing it supersonically through narrow slots around a specially shaped wing tailing edge in order to control the aircraft.
  • Fluidic Thrust Vectoring: Controlling the aircraft by blowing air jets inside the nozzle to deflect the exhaust jet and generate a control force.

Other technologies to improve aircraft performance are being explored in collaboration with NATO Science and Technology Organisation.