New DARPA X-Plane Will Have No Moving Control Surfaces

A computer-generated rendering of the future X-65 X-plane technology demonstrator. (Image: DARPA)

Aurora Flight Sciences has begun manufacturing work on a new X-plane for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Control of Revolutionary Aircraft with Novel Effectors (CRANE) program. This latest phase follows the successful completion of the critical design review (CDR) for the experimental aircraft, designated X-65.

The X-65 full-scale demonstrator being developed by Aurora marks the third phase of the CRANE program, and will break the century-old design paradigm for flight control by eliminating the use of external moving control surfaces. Instead, the X-65’s flight control will be enabled by “jets of air from a pressurized source to shape the flow of air over the aircraft surface, with AFC effectors on several surfaces to control the plane’s roll, pitch, and yaw,” according to DARPA. Eliminating external moving parts is expected to reduce weight and complexity and to improve performance.

“The X-65 is a technology demonstrator, and it’s distinctive, diamond-like wing shape is designed to help us maximize what we can learn about AFC in full-scale, real-world tests,” said Dr. Richard Wlezien, DARPA’s Program Manager for CRANE.

The X-65 will be built with two sets of control actuators – traditional flaps and rudders as well as AFC effectors embedded across all the lifting surfaces. This will both minimize risk and maximize the program’s insight into control effectiveness. The plane’s performance with traditional control surfaces will serve as a baseline; successive tests will selectively lock down moving surfaces, using AFC effectors instead.

The 7,000+ pound, unmanned X-65 will have a 30-foot wingspan and be capable of speeds up to Mach 0.7. Its weight, size, and speed – similar to a military trainer aircraft – make the flight-test results immediately relevant to real world aircraft design.

Component tooling and part fabrication for the uncrewed X-plane are now underway at Aurora facilities in West Virginia and Mississippi.

“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,” said Kevin Uleck, CRANE Program Director at Aurora Flight Sciences. “X-65 has the potential to change the future of aircraft design. Aurora is honored to support DARPA on this groundbreaking program.”

The manufacturing phase of the program follows three years of work, across Aurora and Boeing, in design conceptualization, preliminary and detailed design, wind tunnel testing, AFC system testing, and more. Flight testing is targeted for summer 2025.