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Supersonic Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Close To Becoming Reality

Researchers at University of Colorado developing supersonic UAV that’s fast, economical, and fuel-efficient

GoJett Carbon Fiber Vehicle

GoJett carbon fiber vehicle shell held by University of Colorado Boulder
Master’s graduate Brandon Bosomworth.
Photo Credit: Edgar Flores, University of Colorado Boulder

It’s small. It’s fuel-efficient. It’s reasonably priced. And it’s fast. Supersonic fast. It is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that will fly at speeds approaching Mach 1.4 and faster than anything in the sub-50 kg vehicle category today, using an engine two to four times more efficient than any other in its class. Under development by researchers at the University of Colorado, the prototype is expected to be ready within a year and to be followed by the first commercially-viable offering of its kind.

“Large vehicles have been going at supersonic speeds for years. But small supersonic vehicles under a hundred pounds? That’s never been done,” said University of Colorado Assistant Professor Ryan Starkey, Ph.D., who leads the project. “Partly because it requires as much effort to design a small supersonic vehicle as it does a large one. The design requirements are so different, in fact, that you just can’t leverage what you learned from the big vehicles. It doesn’t scale down.”

Potential applications for this small supersonic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) are wide-ranging, such as flying into storms or hurricanes (subsonic), reaching dangerous, long-distance locations more quickly on military missions, and providing flight test beds for testing aircraft technology. When it goes into commercial production, the vehicle is expected to cost between $50,000 and $100,000. That’s a relatively low price tag compared to the test vehicles in use today, most of them retired fighter jets. Cost also is an important consideration in testing environments that may result in the loss of equipment.

Small Supersonic Engine, Big Efficiencies

At the heart of the UAV is the smallest supersonic jet engine developed to date. The goal is to deliver a high-efficiency, lubrication-free turbojet engine that weighs about 22 pounds and uses a custom-designed afterburner and innovative fluidic thrust vectoring control system. The UAV frame will be compact as well, measuring seven or eight feet long and about six feet wide. Both the engine and the UAV are being designed by Starcor (www.starcor.aero), a company developed through the University of Colorado and incubated by eSpace – The Center for Space Entrepreneurship (www.espacecenter.org) to transition research from the University’s Busemann Advanced Concepts Lab, which Starkey heads, to government and industry.
Starkey and his students have already achieved efficiencies that are twice that of an “off-the-shelf” engine. Their next goal is to set the world speed record for aircraft in the sub-50 kg vehicle class, which may happen early next year.

Aggressive Goals Require Advanced Tools

Achieving Mach 1.4 flight powered by a small, lightweight, fuel-efficient engine is an aggressive undertaking. It requires intensive CFD simulation, optimization, and complicated analysis. It also involves the same complexity of any major system development program–without the large, dedicated team to perform the design work. Assimilating and analyzing the massive amounts of data required for this scale of design requires advanced tools, especially in a resource-limited environment.

Surrogate model

Surrogate model showing the difference in drag values between two different system models created using Tecplot Chorus.
Image Credit: Ryan Starkey, University of Colorado Boulder

Starkey and his group used several tools to design and optimize the airframe, made of a lightweight composite skin and bulkhead reinforcement, for supersonic flight. Specifically, they used the ANSYS finite element method (FEM) to predict maximum loading conditions, ANSYS Fluent and Zona ZEUS CFD solvers to validate the aerodynamics, and Tecplot Chorus to visualize, analyze and optimize the results.

“Tecplot Chorus is one of the newer tools that we’ve been working with,” said Starkey. “And it has vastly simplified our multi-disciplinary design space exploration and analysis efforts.”

University Research Fuels Industry

“The transfer of technology from university research to real-life applications is so important. On a grand scale, it advances society and contributes to local, national, and global economies,” Starkey went on. “On a more pragmatic level, it provides hands-on, practical experience to over sixty undergraduate and graduate students at the university that can help them get jobs when they graduate.”

The project already has caught the attention of the United States Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“This UAV should help shape the next generation of high-speed flight experimentation by making recurring flight testing economically feasible, much in the spirit of the mid-century, rocket-powered research aircraft, like the X-15,” said Starkey. “The students working with me on this are excited because what we’re doing isn’t bringing incremental change; it’s monumental change.”

Tecplot Chorus Screenshot

Evaluation of GoJett performance over changing flight conditions. Image Credit: Ryan Starkey, University of Colorado Boulder