DARPA's air-steered X-65 jet heads into production with goal of flying by 2025

Moving parts on a plane? What is this, Kitty Hawk?

The latest experimental DARPA aircraft, which is designed to maneuver without the need for moving parts, is headed to the manufacturing stage and could be flying as soon as next year.

The X-65 is being built by Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, who scored a contract with the Defense Department last year as part of the Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program. 

The key technology being explored as part of CRANE is known as active flow control (AFC), which relies on directed jets of pressurized air to steer the aircraft instead of flaps and rudders. 

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"X-65 has the potential to change the future of aircraft design," said Aurora CRANE program director Kevin Uleck. "As we move into the manufacturing phase, we are getting ever closer to fulfilling the goal of validating AFC technology and helping to open the design trade space for future applications." 

Aurora said AFC has potential applications in the military and civilian worlds for its potential to reduce aircraft weight, improve aerodynamics, allow for new types of aircraft design and reduce mechanical complexity. 

The production phase will culminate in a flight test of the 30-foot wingspan, 7,000 lb unmanned aircraft at air speeds up to Mach 0.7. Data from the test flight will be immediately applicable to real-world scenarios because the X-65 has size, weight and speed similar to military trainer aircraft, DARPA said. A set of 14 AFC banks with independently-controllable air supply channels will be included in the craft. 

To gauge the effectiveness of AFC effectors compared to traditional flaps and rudders the X-65 will be built with both types. Traditional flight control will be used to establish a baseline of X-65 performance, and future flights will lock down various moving components to compare the performance of AFCs. 

"The X-65 conventional surfaces are like training wheels to help us understand how AFC can be used in place of traditional flaps and rudders," said Richard Wlezien, CRANE program manager at DARPA. "We'll have sensors in place to monitor how the AFC effectors' performance compares with traditional control mechanisms." 

The X-65 will also have a modular design, allowing for parts to be swapped out for future test flights and different AFC designs. It's not immediately clear whether an X-65 will be built with both rudders and AFCs, or if parts will be swapped for test flights. Neither DARPA nor Aurora responded to questions.

Preliminary tests, including critical design review, wind tunnel testing and scale-model construction have already been completed, and X-65 fabrication has begun at Aurora facilities in West Virginia and Mississippi, the Boeing subsidiary said. System integration and ground testing will take place at Aurora's headquarters in Virginia, and flight testing is targeted for Summer, 2025. ®

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