If there is a future in unmanned commercial aviation, it is currently being explored by NASA in the form of the Lockheed Martin X-56A. Its adaptive structures and modular wing and tail surfaces are meant to be the cutting edge for designing future surveillance drones and transport aircraft. A little less than two years ago, the Air Force Research Laboratory flew the X-56A for the first time at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center (now named Armstrong Flight Research Center) in California. After the Air Force-sponsored tests, the X-56A was transferred to NASA where it flew its inaugural flight on July 26 last year. It’s currently being flown in “NASA’s Advanced Air Transport Technology (AATT) project’s Higher Aspect Ratio Wing subproject, Performance Adaptive Aeroelastic Wing element.” A very fancy name for a project that supports low-emission, high efficiency aircraft with less aerodynamic drag.

In the military world, X stands for Experimental. There are a gaggle of X-numbered drones, mostly of the futuristic variety, demonstrators or pretenders to the throne who want to be anointed the next unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV). The UCAV itself is a pretender as it has gone through various iterations like UCAS, UCAS-D, JUCAS, and now UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike), all searching for just the right combination of letters and circumstances that are going to unlock billions from the Pentagon.

There are, of course, highly secret X’s like the X-37 space plane (coming to these pages soon) that are not really X’s at all. The X-37 and a few other top secret X’s are less stealthy, off-line spying machines, a third satellite, third drone, and third space shuttle–an unmanned vehicle that meanders about the globe without an official “program of record.” And without that record, they remain undeserving of an official RQ or MQ number assignment that the secure drones get or even an F or B assigned to fighters and bombers.

So is it possible in all of this that Lockheed Martin’s X-56A Multi-utility Aeroelastic Demonstration (MAD) is actually a true experiment? It certainly seems like it. Designed for active flutter suppression, which sounds a little like a project to avoid falling in love, the X-56A is a high-flying model intended test the edge of the flight envelope, where flutter, the potentially catastrophic dynamic coupling that can occur between the elastic motion of the wing and the aerodynamic loads acting on it, occurs. Which means... what, exactly?

The idea of aerodynamic flutter suppression isn’t new, not for NASA and not for the military. Both of these links are technical reports from the early 1970s, which mean pretty much nothing to the lay person, although it’s always interesting to see how government-sponsored research projects were handled more than 40 years ago. But a PowerPoint presentation (with diagrams!), from Dr. Eli Livne at The William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at University of Washington, basically shows us this: an aircraft of any kind has to be both rigid enough to continue flying in the face of inclement weather, but also maintain enough elasticity that it doesn’t snap apart with a strong gust of wind. UAV’s face a particular challenge in this arena without a pilot on board to help make sudden shifts in altitude or directional changes, but the X-56A might be just the experiment to do so.

Fun Facts about the X-56A:

  • NASA: King of Dad Jokes.
  • The Lockheed Martin precursor to the X-56A was called the Body Freedom Flutter Research Program, or, BFF for short. So cuuute.
  • The FAA is determined to be a part of the UAV conversation, dammit. Another PowerPoint from Dr. Livne outlines just how they have tried (and failed) to insert themselves into the experimental endeavors of NASA, using the X-56A as an example of why they should be included. But their own website has an entire section dedicated to debunking myths about how the FAA doesn’t have jurisdiction over UAVs, so it’s clear they have their work cut out for them.
  • Lockheed has produced a video narrated by a wannabe Sam Elliot that does a pretty good job at explaining flutter and the X-56A’s role in designing more fluid wing structures:

[First photo courtesy of NASA; Second photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.]