Can blended wing bodies solve commercial’s innovation problem?

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Blended wing

As of October 5th, 2023, the design of the Boeing 737 is closer to the first flight of Wright brothers’ Kitty Hawk than it is to the present day. Framed by that reality, it is clear to see commercial aviation has an innovation problem.

Tube-and-wing design has served aviation well; it is the universally-recognised shape of an aircraft. But the design, despite a series of updates since its inception such as composite materials and winglets, is inefficient. According to IATA, the global airline industry is set to spend about $215bn on fuel this year. This is 30% of total operating expenses, and over $40bn more than the value of all commercial aircraft deliveries in 2023.

If only there was an airframe design that could solve this efficiency problem? JetZero founders Mark Page and Tom O’Leary are sure they have the answer. Enter the blended wing body, first debuted at our inaugural Revolution.Aero event in 2018.

Design origins

JetZero’s blended wing body (BWB) design builds upon decades of work begun by McDonnell Douglas and NASA in the early ‘90s and continued by Boeing, culminating in the X-48 demonstrator. Bombardier also has a BWB programme known as EcoJet, and Airbus has a blended wing concept in its ZEROe plans.

The design does what it says on the tin. It features a single blended wing airframe with two rear mounted engines. As defined by NASA a blended configuration wing is characterised by “an overall aircraft design that provides minimal distinction between wings and fuselage, and fuselage and tail.” Ironically, Page is a tail design engineer by trade. The BWB closely resembles a flying wing but concentrates more volume in the centre section of the aircraft. Testing and analysis carried out by JetZero shows this design configuration offers 50% lower fuel burn using today’s engines versus a wide body tube-and-wing thanks to increased lift and drastically reduced drag. The concept could also transport up to 250 passengers, equivalent to the capacity of widebody jets like a Boeing 767.

The BWB design should also have lower maintenance costs over time. Not having the engines mounted under the wing makes them less susceptible to damage, there is also no vertical stabiliser which makes the control surfaces more modest. All of which results in fewer complex parts and thus a cheaper maintenance bill in the long run.

But with three decades of research and testing – even a NASA X-plane (X-48) – why has a BWB configuration not taken commercial aviation, particularly the middle distance market segment, by storm? There are a few theories. One is that McDonnell Douglas and then Boeing didn’t want to shoot themselves in the foot by creating competition with other existing product lines. Last week Airbus did something similar with hydrogen. The firm says it it is still working out which in which sector it would launch a hydrogen-powered aircraft, but will start small and avoid competing with its other aircraft models. A deviation from its previous 2035 entry into service target in the narrowbody segment.

The second and more likely theory is timing. From a technology evolution perspective, the industry has never been better placed to get a BWB aircraft in to commercial service.

“We are building upon a whole lot of work in starting this venture,” Tom O’Leary CEO and co-founder tells us. “There has been over $1bn spent on the research, design and testing of the X-48 and the key enabling technologies that make a blended wing body possible. My career has spanned the likes of eBay, Tesla and BETA Technologies. From that perspective: ‘When do you have the opportunity to do a startup where NASA has spent $1bn researching and proving the technology over the course of decades?’.” Very rarely.

On top of that, how often does the chance come up to form a startup that can enter a mature market where in any particular segment there is high demand and zero supply? “That is what we find in the gap between single aisles and twin aisles,” says O’Leary. “We’ve got this mid-market gap our company can address with supply. It is economics 101, it is fantastic.”

Closing the business case

Startups are about product-market fit and JetZero’s aircraft concept meets a variety of commercial aviation needs from lowering carbon emissions and fuel burn to addressing passenger experience and boosting operator margins, says O’Leary. “The tube-and-wing airframe configuration has served us incredibly well in terms of its safety and reliability. It has set the standards we must meet and exceed. But there are all these other needs that the future of aviation demands – a path to zero emissions, propulsion and an airframe that can support this future technologies in the best, most efficient way.

“There are so many benefits to be realised from addressing the three other forces of flight: lift, weight and drag. These are all harmoniously addressed with the BWB airframe. That is where we are able to deliver a 50% reduction in fuel burn and emissions,” says O’Leary.

Those reductions are key to how JetZero closes its business case. “Fuel is such a massive cost. Airlines burn jet fuel by the billions of gallon each year. The top airlines in the US burn about four billion gallons of jet fuel per year. People often ask us how will the business case close. Well, look at that fuel burn, that is how. 

“From our perspective we have to take this one step at a time. The first is demonstration and we will close that part of the business case through our work with our partners Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites. They’re with us because the [US] air force came in and said we want this demonstrator,” says O’Leary.

Funding

The US Air Force, through its Defence Innovation Unit, announced its funding for JetZero in August last year. Under the terms of the award, JetZero will receive $235m over four years as and when certain targets are met, resulting in a first flight of a full-scale demonstrator by the first quarter of 2027. “The structure of the DoD contract is a public-private partnership so we unlock those allotted funds when we match dollars and show our technical progress,” says O’Leary. The DoD award, alongside Series A funding including capital from DiamondStream Partners, brings the total raise to close to $70m. (The firm is moving toward its Series B now too).

Dave Spurlock, MD at DiamondStream tells us: “Sitting between a Boeing 767 and Airbus A321 or Boeing Max 900, the BWB caps off the top of the narrowbody market, but it also competes with the shorter end of the widebody market. You can fly the aircraft 5,000nm which will easily get you across the Atlantic, anywhere in South America, and from certain places in the US will get you into Asia. It is a dominant technology for really where most of the travel takes place. What you have is widebody payload and range with narrowbody engines.”

When all of those factors are put together, there is potential there to build a company with a very significant market cap, says Spurlock. Compare that with other disruptive technologies in development such as electric vertical takeoff or landing (eVTOL) aircraft where there is little to no end user market right now. “The capital cost per seat mile is very high, it is going to cost more than driving around in a car, but less than a helicopter. Then you take a look at the BWB market where there is absolutely no market risk. If you can build a technology with 50% less fuel burn and emissions, that isn’t a billion dollar market – that is market in the tens of billions. That just makes it a very attractive deal.

“We understand why and how the major carriers make decisions on aircraft from an insider’s point of view. We’re here to help JetZero understand those dynamics  the realities of commercial aviation markets.” 

It really comes down to what drives your customer. But that is not always easy to do and can even come back to design decisionssays Spurlock. “There are tradeoffs aircraft designers make decades before the aircraft flies. We want to make sure the designer has a complete understanding of the commercial implication of any tradeoff.

“Designing an aircraft is one and the same as making tradeoff decisions.” 

Bringing a commercial aircraft to market is not easy. It costs huge amounts of money, takes a long time and there is lots of execution risk as the Chinese and Russians have discovered. But that is where the “deep experience” of the team at JetZero gives Spurlock confidence. The firm’s leadership team includes (but is not limited to): Dr. Robert Liebeck and Blaine Rawdon who joined Page in the first NASA investigations of the BWB concept back in ‘90s; Dr. Ilan Kroo the founder of ZeeAero now known as Wisk; Ron Kawai who worked on Douglas Aircraft’s nuclear plane programme and is a recognised leader in hydrogen propulsion; Bethany Davis the former director of Flight Innovation at Gulfstream; and Dr. John Vassberg former chief aerodynamicist at Boeing’s Phantom Works. Not to mention Page himself, who has been at leading edge of aircraft design for decades – his work includes the Cirrus Vision Jet and BETA Technologies’ Alia.

Path to hydrogen 

Whatever your thoughts are about the potential of hydrogen propulsion, and JetZero will be among the first to say there is a lot of work required, the firm’s BWB aircraft – with all its extra volumetric capacity versus a tube-and-wing – will be ready to make the switch should it become available. As JetZero puts it: “An ultra-efficient blended wing airframe is agnostic to future propulsion solutions and would lower cost of ownership”. 

O’Leary explains: “A lot of studies are pointing towards hydrogen as an inevitable future in aviation. Obviously there is a lot to prove there in terms of technology maturity level, but hydrogen combustion is one we are super interested in. The BWB airframe is a more natural fit for the constraints of hydrogen, particularly in terms of storage. 

The ability to deliver a true zero emissions aircraft is a future I think we can all aspire to and get behind. The beauty of this airframe is it allows us to come to market immediately using existing engines and knock 50% off.”

The path for JetZero to enter into service by 2030 is clearly set out, with the first stage being a flight of a full-scale demonstrator in 2027. If the team achieves its entry into service plan, it will be 66 years since Boeing designers first put pen to paper on the 737, and 127 years since the Wright brothers maiden flight.

127? Maybe there is movie to be made here, but this time round the main character loses a tail rather than a hand.

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