A British unmanned plane that uses jets of air to fly instead of conventional ‘flaps’ has made aviation history.
The experimental unmanned air vehicle (UAV), called DEMON, uses blown jets of air to control the plane’s movement in flight rather than conventional mechanical elevators and ailerons.
Experts say this will make it much easier to maintain as there are far fewer moving parts and gives the aircraft a more stealthy profile.
The DEMON UAV on its historic flight as it becomes the first to control its elevation using jets of air
DEMON made its historic flight at Walney Island in Cumbria on Friday 17th September and was developed by Cranfield University with BAE Systems and nine other UK universities.
DEMON’s trial flights were the first ‘flapless flights’ ever to be authorised by the UK Civil Aviation Authority.
All aeroplane wings have moveable sections called flaps. During takeoff and landing, the flaps are extended backwards and downwards from the trailing edge of the wings.
This alters the shape of the wing, forcing the air to take a longer journey over the top of the wing and pushing the wing up, creating lift.
The jets on the DEMON aircraft work in a different way. The plane works by manipulating the air that flows immediately next to its skin, rather than changing its shape.
Jets of air close to the trailing edge of the wing change whether the air moves away from or towards the wing. Sensors along the wing constantly monitor the airflow and can adjust the direction of the jets of air.
The DEMON has an eight-foot wingspan and weighs just 200lbs. DEMON can fly parts of its mission by itself but is not fully autonomous as it is still just an experimental vehicle.
The aircraft’s shape is known as a 'blended wing-body' configuration.
In Cumbria last Friday, DEMON successfully demonstrated flapless flight when, for a planned portion of a test-flight, the conventional flap control system was turned off and the aircraft flew and manoeuvred using the new technology.
The aircraft’s success builds on previous UAV work by BAE as part of the FLAVIIR programme.
A graphic that shows the inside of the DEMON - the first plane to use jets of air to fly
Richard Williams, BAE Systems programme director for Future Capability, said: 'What the FLAVIIR Team have achieved in such a short time is nothing short of remarkable. I was in Cumbria to watch DEMON fly and I feel sure I have witnessed a significant moment in aviation history.'
He added: 'What makes it even more poignant is that this is the result of British brains collaborating to produce world-leading technology. It, and other initiatives like it, will help ensure we maintain both a level of sovereign capability and a competitive edge.'
The flapless system, developed around a concept called fluidic flight control was tested in wind tunnels and on models before the full-scale trials on DEMON took place.
Professor John Fielding, chief engineer and lead for the DEMON demonstrator team from Cranfield University, said: 'To make an aircraft fly and manoeuvre safely without the use of conventional control surfaces is an achievement in itself; to do that while at the same time bringing together new construction techniques and new control mechanisms could be said to be over-ambitious – but we have done it.
‘The DEMON UAV has been developed within a research programme but it is a representative, complex, high technology aircraft. Gaining approval from the CAA and flying it successfully has required great skill, dedication and patience by the team and they should be very proud of their achievement.”
While D|EMON itself is not expected to become a production aircraft, a number of the technologies it contains are expected to end up in future aircraft designs.