New Biplane Design Seeks Supersonic Speeds

MIT researchers build upon decades-old design in attempt to revive supersonic travel.

Supersonic Biplane

Supersonic Biplane

** Conceptual drawing of a supersonic biplane
based on an original drawing courtesy of
Obayashi laboratory, Tohoku University**
Christine Daniloff/MIT News

The supersonic aircraft of the future could look quite different from that of designs past, if the recent findings of one MIT researcher and his colleagues hold true.

Assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics Qiqi Wang has developed a supersonic biplane design that he says could reduce drag and consequently fuel consumption and sonic boom, providing the potential for a new breed of aircraft to carry on the dream of supersonic travel where Concorde left off.

According to Wang, this concept is not entirely new. German engineer Adolf Busemann is credited with coming up with a biplane design that essentially nullified shock waves at supersonic speeds, and the sonic boom they create, more than half a century ago. While in principle the design, featuring two wings approaching one another in dual triangular shapes, worked great at supersonic cruise speeds, it created an insurmountable amount of drag when approaching such speeds.

Wang and his team of MIT engineers, however, believe they’ve reached a breakthrough on that front. After testing Busemann’s design on a computer model and analyzing 700 different wing configurations at various speeds, the team identified the ideal supersonic biplane configuration, one that could, according to Wang, cut drag and fuel consumption of past aircraft like the Concorde in half.

The new wing relies on smooth inner surfaces to open up the rather narrow airflow channel that existed between the wings of Busemann’s design. It also bumps out the edges of both wings in ways that achieve optimal performance.

The findings of Wang’s team will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Aircraft. The group will now move forward with designing a 3D model of the configuration and testing its performance amidst other variables.

And while Wang and his team are hard at work, he points out in MIT News that his group is not the only one trying to make headway using Busemann's design. Researchers in Japan are reportedly working on a similar supersonic design that features malleable wings.

Both groups, undoubtedly joined by Concorde nostalgists across the planet, hope their work will lead to a resurgence of supersonic travel, this time around in a less noisy, more fuel-efficient craft.