The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has given Aurora Flight Sciences the green light to build a full-scale model of the X-65 — an experimental unmanned aircraft designed to be able to fly without flaps, rudders or other exterior-moving parts.
Aurora announced Wednesday that it has successfully completed the critical design review and begun fabricating the drone, part of DARPA’s Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program aimed at proving and maturing active flow control (AFC) technology.
The Virginia-based company and the Pentagon agency are looking to conduct the first flight of the X-plane in the summer of 2025.
“As we move into the manufacturing phase, we are getting ever closer to fulfilling the goal of validating AFC technology and helping to open the design trade space for future applications. X-65 has the potential to change the future of aircraft design,” Kevin Uleck, CRANE program director at Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing subsidiary, said in a statement.
The X-65’s sleek, aerodynamic design features AFC effectors across the platform’s flying surfaces that are used to control its roll, pitch and yaw. The technology allows for operators to maneuver the system with bursts of air instead of external moving parts, such as the wing flaps and tail rudders found on most of today’s planes.
According to DARPA, removing these parts could offer a range of performance enhancements for future aircraft by reducing their weight, drag and mechanical complexity.
“The X-65 is a technology demonstrator, and its distinctive, diamond-like wing shape is designed to help us maximize what we can learn about AFC in full-scale, real-world tests,” Richard Wlezien, DARPA’s program manager for CRANE, said in a statement.
Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin were both tapped by the agency in 2021 to conduct preliminary design work for phase 1 of the CRANE program. Aurora eventually moved on to phase 2 as sole contractor, receiving a $42 million deal in 2023 to complete detailed design work and develop flight software and controls. The contract also included an option for a phase 3 manufacturing period.
According to DARPA, the full-scale X-65 built in phase 3 will weigh over 7,000 pounds, have a 30-foot wingspan and be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 0.7 — around 537 miles per hour. The modular design will feature replaceable outboard wings and AFC effectors — meaning various AFC designs could be tested on the X-plane in the future.
The demonstrator aircraft will incorporate mechanical flaps and rudders that are intended to serve as a baseline for the platform’s performance, as well as AFC effectors that will replace moving surfaces throughout the testing cycle.
“The X-65 conventional surfaces are like training wheels to help us understand how AFC can be used in place of traditional flaps and rudders,” Wlezien said. “We’ll have sensors in place to monitor how the AFC effectors’ performance compares with traditional control mechanisms, and these data will help us better understand how AFC could revolutionize both military and commercial craft in the future.”