With declining budgets at NASA and an airline industry beset with growth pains, soaring fuel costs, and bankrupt carriers it has been some time since I have seen true innovation in the aerospace industry. For decades, airplanes have advanced very little despite tremendous strides in tools, materials, and engines. Incremental tweaks on 20+ year-old designs comprise the bulk of the commercial and military complement. But I now have new hope of a resurgent industry.
Check out the Smartfish personal aircraft design project that has been the ongoing masterwork of a rock-star design team from Germany and Switzerland since 2003. Smartfish might seem like an odd name for an airplane until you get a look at it's profile; it is very piranha-like indeed.
The basic concept is to design and build a new generation of personal aircraft using the latest software design and simulation tool, aerodynamics, composite materials, and jet engine technologies. When aggregated into one cohesive design demonstrating unprecedented efficiencies, the initial results promise a tiny craft whose entire body provides lift rather just relying on the wings. The svelte profile of the composite material lifting body introduces less drag with modest wings, and requires less thrust to power. It requires so much less thrust that a tiny engine powered by a hydrogen fuel cell drove the first 1-meter model craft at full speed for 15 minutes.
There are so many interesting aspects to this design project that I almost don't know where to start. Thankfully, their web site nicely documents the project's evolution from initial concept, to computer modeling and optimization, to wind-tunnel tests and model flights. Truly amazing start-to-finish. Here is a short photo summary of the amazing project to-date.
Here is the original CAD drawing for the design concept.
This is a rendering of the simulated air flow around the CAD model which shows the vortex-lift generated by the novel lifting body shape that makes the craft so efficient.
This is an image of the numerically-controlled milling machine carving the mold for the single-piece carbon-composite body.
An image of the completed top-panel mold.
The completed 1 meter scale model.
A Trade-show booth highlighting the completed model and the simple hydrogen fuel cell powered jet engine.
The engineers installing the model in the big wind tunnel for stability and control testing and design optimization.
Making the last pre-test connections.
The post-test flow patterns painted on the model by the test fluids.
And see the model in flight in this short promo video.
This project is a complete tour-de-force of modern design, and demonstrates what it takes to change an industry: several years of monomaniacal focus in a small elite team. I believe these folks are really going to succeed in changing the industry where multi-billion dollar multinational aerospace conglomerates have been stalled for decades. It is really the silicon valley start-up model applied to aerospace, much like Tesla is changing the automotive world.
And oh yes, I definitely want one. I'd even take a MODEL of one.