British aerospace, defence, security and shipbuilding group BAE Systems and the University of Manchester unveiled their joint Magma experimental jet-powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programme in the middle of last month. They announced that the Magma had successfully completed its first phase of flight trials.
Magma is described as a “small-scale” UAV, but the joint venture partners provided no indication of its size. Chairs and a table just visible in the background of a photo issued with the media release suggest that its dimensions are in the range of a few metres. It is serving as a technology research, development and demonstrator platform for a unique concept for controlling aircraft in flight, using what is called ‘blown air’, instead of conventional flight control surfaces such as ailerons, elevators and rudders. (The air that comes out of a hairdryer is an everyday example of blown air.)
The Magma will be used to try out two new flight control technologies: Wing Circulation Control and Fluidic Thrust Vectoring. Wing Circulation Control takes air from the engine and blows it, at supersonic speed, through the trailing edge of the wing, and uses this to control the aircraft. (To clarify: the air travels supersonically, not the UAV.) Fluidic Thrust Vectoring uses blown air to deflect the engine exhaust, thereby allowing the aircraft to change direction. If successful, these blown air flight control technologies would reduce weight, cut maintenance costs and could increase flight control. In military aircraft, they would increase stealth. In both military and civil aircraft, they would increase efficiency.
“The technologies we are developing with the University of Manchester will make it possible to design cheaper, higher-performance, next-generation aircraft,” observed BAE Systems Engineering Fellow Clyde Warsop. “Our investment in research and development (R&D) drives continued technological improvements in our advanced military aircraft, helping to ensure UK aerospace remains at the forefront of the industry and that we retain the right skills to design and build the aircraft of the future.”
“These trials are an important step forward in our efforts to explore adaptable airframes,” said University of Manchester Magma Project leader and senior academic Bill Crowther. “What we are seeking to do through this programme is truly ground breaking.”
In addition, other technologies to improve the UAV’s performance are being examined in cooperation with the University of Arizona, in the US, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Science and Technology Organisation. Magma is a continuing project and part of a long-term and wider joint initiative between UK industry, academia and government to research and develop new methods of flight control.
The coming months will see a flight test programme to demonstrate the new flight control technologies. The final objective is to fly the UAV without any fins or moving control surfaces. Should this be successful, it would be the first time that such an approach has been employed on a jet aircraft powered by a single engine.
BAE Systems invested £1-billion in R&D in 2016 alone, of which £10.7-million was devoted to partnerships with top British universities. Areas covered by such joint research with academia include advanced manufacturing, air vehicles, artificial intelligence, avionics testing and novel materials.