Boeing's (NYSE:BA) Dreamliner may seem like the plane of the future, but compared with the next-generation passenger concept planes that NASA is researching, it's already outdated. While that may sound like bad news for Boeing, it's not. Boeing, Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC), and Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) all won contracts to develop next-gen planes, and these planes could be hitting the runway in 2025.
Concepts for the future
In 2010, NASA awarded contracts to Boeing, Northrop, and Lockheed, to study advanced concept designs for aircraft that could take to the skies in 2025. Further, NASA stated that this plane has to "fly up to 85 percent of the speed of sound; cover a range of approximately 7,000 miles; and carry between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of payload, either passengers or cargo." Moreover, it has to produce less noise, generate less pollution, and have 50% lower fuel consumption than the aircraft that entered service in 1998. No biggie, right? Well, here are three designs the defense giants came up with.
Boeing's concept is based on the blended-wing, remotely piloted X-48 -- which has already been shown to be particularly aerodynamic at NASA's Langley Research Center. Boeing also placed both of the turbofan engines on the back of the plane and coupled the aircraft with two vertical tails to reduce noise on the ground. Further, NASA stated that the aircraft "would feature an advanced lightweight, damage tolerant, composite structure; technologies for reducing airframe noise; advanced flight controls; hybrid laminar flow control, which means surfaces designed to reduce drag; and long-span wings which improve fuel efficiency."
The B-2 "flying wing" is an iconic symbol of stealth and advanced technology. As such, it's no surprise that Northrop decided to base its concept on the B-2. Unlike traditional planes, the flying wing doesn't have a stabilizing tail, and Northrop incorporated that into its concept. Further, the design uses four high-bypass engines that are set in the upper body of the plane. In addition, the design uses advanced composite materials and reduces noise, thanks to the design of the wing.
Not to be outdone, Lockheed's concept is based on a box wing design, which, thanks to advances in technology, is now possible. Further, Lockheed's design is made of lightweight composite materials and uses a next-gen Rolls Royce Liberty Works Ultra Fan Engine that NASA says has a bypass ratio that's about five times greater than current engines. Lockheed has also been working on the box-wing design for three decades. More excitingly, Lockheed came up with a supersonic passenger plane that could hypothetically produce a lower sonic boom, which would enable the lifting of the current ruling prohibiting supersonic flight over land.
What to watch
Currently, all of these planes are concepts, but NASA has said it's committed to "make aircraft safer, faster, and more efficient and to help transform the national air transportation system," and it's taking steps to meet that objective. For Boeing, Northrop, or Lockheed, this could prove to be incredibly lucrative if NASA decides to pursue one of their designs, and help fund its continued research. Of course, that's a big "if," and as of now, it's too early to tell what will happen. Still, if I had to bet on seeing one company win NASA's next-gen plane, I'd bet on Boeing -- simply because it has the most experience with commercial aviation. Regardless, this is a story investors should continue to follow.