New X-56A Aircraft to Examine Flutter

Testbed aims to explore more efficient ways to manage the aerodynamic effect.

X-56A

X-56A

X-56AU.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force unveiled the X-56A last week, its newest experimental aircraft specifically crafted to explore ways to protect against flutter.

Flutter is an aerodynamic effect – one that has caused a number of fatal accidents over the years – that occurs when the vibrations of an aircraft’s wing trigger a potentially dangerous increase in load. The phenomenon can cause enough stress to lead to wing failure and is most threatening to high altitude aircraft with lightweight, flexible wings.

While flutter can be controlled by increasing the weight of the wing, the X-56A aims to offer a more efficient solution that doesn’t require a loss of agility. Designed by Lockheed Martin, the UAV is equipped with a dynamic wing built to recognize areas of destructive vibrations and adapt to them by dispersing the load out over a greater area. The wing – which comes in four variations – relies on sensors and flaps to accomplish the feat.

The unmanned aircraft will undergo testing at the Air Force Research Laboratory located at Edwards AF Base this summer, where researchers will use it to examine technology that would be too risky to test using other platforms. The aircraft will operate at speeds between 90 and 150 knots during the tests and will remain predominately below an altitude of just 1,000 feet. If the X-56A experiences wing loads that are too great and suffers a structural failure in flight, the UAV can rely on its ballistic parachute recovery system.

The aircraft will undergo 25 hours of testing at Edwards before it heads to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center for further testing. While researchers behind the X-56A hope the program will benefit reconnaissance efforts, they say the results could also lead to innovations in commercial aviation and other sectors.