China’s latest hypersonic test plane uses NASA-abandoned landing technology

Chinese researchers say they have revived wheelless landing technology invented by Nasa more than 60 years ago, and it is being used on the country’s latest hypersonic test plane.

Most winged planes land on a set of wheels that absorb shock and help with braking and steering. But the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics team said they have returned to using skid landing gear for the test plane, with the help of artificial intelligence.

Their prototype hypersonic aircraft – after traveling at five times the speed of sound or faster – will land on a pair of skids that deploy below and slow the aircraft while keeping its nose straight ahead.

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The skid landing system was developed, based on existing technology, by Wei Xiaohui, a professor at the National Defense Basic Science University Key Laboratory.

The test plane will be able to land at almost any airport “as long as it has a concrete airstrip,” Wei and his team said in an article published in the peer-reviewed magazine. Journal of Beijing Aeronautics and Astronautics University Last week.

Landing gear also takes up less space, saving nearly 60%, they said.

The skid landing was first used by NASA but was later abandoned as too dangerous. His X-15 rocket-powered aircraft made a brief manned hypersonic flight at Mach 6 in 1967, using a pair of skids to land because there was no room for landing gear in its small wings.

The skids were simple gears that could neither brake nor steer – the plane had to land on the wide flat surface of a dry lake bed because it could go in any direction after touching down. During an emergency landing in 1962, a skid gear broke and flipped the plane, seriously injuring a pilot.

The X-15 project ended in 1968 and the skids disappeared from NASA’s hypersonic flight program.

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In eastern China, the new gears developed by Wei’s team are apparently more powerful. They said that even if the test plane landed at over 200 km/h but veered off course by 10 meters, the skids could bring it back to the center of the runway in just seconds.

Unlike a wheel, a skid cannot effectively alter the path of a moving aircraft by turning – a problem the team said it solved by adding a brake pad to each skid.

So if the plane leans too far to the right, the skid attached to the left skid will come down and touch the runway, the friction changing the balance and bringing the plane back on its correct course.

That’s the theory, but in reality there are many other unpredictable factors at play, including the weather – and that’s where the artificial intelligence comes in. Wei’s team said they used the technology to improve the accuracy of its skid control software.

They said they were inspired by bird behavior – how a flock exchanges information to locate where food is most likely to be.

Machine learning algorithms identify the best ways to land so that the skid landing gear control system can keep the aircraft on track in all conditions by exchanging information based on data collected by the sensors.

China has invested heavily in hypersonic research and aims to have a fleet of aircraft capable of flying passengers anywhere on the planet in an hour or two by 2035, according to a government plan.

After more than two decades of research, Chinese scientists and engineers say they have solved some of the big problems with hypersonic flight, including those related to excessive heating, air-breathing engines and flight-control technology.

But issues such as landing and noise could hold back the application of hypersonic technology for military and civilian purposes – and artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in solving some of these problems, according to scientists involved in the study. the programs.

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