In the early weeks of the pandemic’s ravaging of global commercial aviation, Airbus pulled the plug on a full-scale demonstrator program called E-Fan X, a bid to convert one of four engines on an aging regional jet to hybrid-electric propulsion. After its cancellation in April 2020, much of the technical leadership of that project moved to shepherd a new type of demonstrator.
The project is called X-Wing. It’s a name that belies the morphing shape of its wings and a nod to an iconic vehicle from science fiction, but well beyond the internal moniker are far reaching implications for Airbus’s future airliners and the unceasing competition with Boeing.
The company is expected to share additional details about its upcoming demonstrator aircraft at an event in Toulouse next week, focusing on its sustainability efforts. The Air Current has focused recent months extensively reporting on Airbus’s, until now, secret research effort to completely re-wing a Cessna business jet and rapidly accelerate a suite of new advanced flight control technologies — including a foldable wingtip designed to flap freely in turbulence and maneuvers.
Airbus is adamant that the demonstrator is not for any one specific application. Those involved in the program tell The Air Current that the building blocks of X-Wing are intended to serve as the basis for making its future technology choices in 2025 — leading to either a major incremental update to an existing program or a completely new clean-sheet design.
Major leaps in propulsion technology like next generation engine architectures, hydrogen, hybrid or electric propulsion offer a tantalizing revolution in carbon reduction, potentially ready for service by 2035. Yet, X-Wing underscores the challenge for modern commercial aircraft manufacturers about where and how to focus research to find future technological breakthroughs today.
Absent an all-new propulsion technology, the result of 70 years of commercial jet travel is that the next frontier is the sum total of incremental steps that all add up to the next big leap. Finding that next big jump in efficiency has become ever-more complex and expensive. The low hanging fruit has been picked clean.
“We will not launch a new product if we do not have a real breakthrough in terms of fuel consumption,” a senior Airbus official close to the demonstrator program tells TAC. “What we try here is to bring all the bits and pieces together to see how do we make it on a holistic view, something coherent. This is part of the demonstration to understand and define the best possible product.”
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