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Nano-design made from a lightweight super-particle could be rapidly developed into unmanned aircraft capable of flying long distances
The “bullet” plane that could change flying
Engineers have overcome a long-standing obstacle to creating an unmanned aircraft with stealth qualities – the ability to hide from radar.
Using a slender and flexible sensor they have created a jet that can fly fast enough to make a 25-minute transatlantic flight undetected, without damaging itself, unless it hits a plane.
The team from the University of Tokyo’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology tested the design on a specially built five-metre-long “bullet” plane.
In tests, the plane remained hidden from radar by flying against the wind and bobbing above the water. It could also deliver a payload of up to 8kg (18lb) – enough for two people – if fitted with a solar panel and some self-guided controls.
The breakthrough comes just months after a Nasa team was able to carry out an entirely flyable version of the same sort of flight, dubbed an earlybird.
Experts say the development of ultra-lightweight aircraft capable of long-distance flights could revolutionise aviation.
The aircraft developed at MIT comes from a kind of lightweight super-particle called a nanotube, which could be rapidly developed into unmanned aircraft capable of flying long distances without causing major damage to itself or its payload.
Researchers predicted the construction of one of the bullet planes would cost about £10,000, or about 10% of the £40,000 required to build an “earlybird”.
That means the cost could fall to less than £1,000 by 2022 or 2023, they added.
The prototype is built of carbon fibre and carbon nanotubes. Photograph: Nasa
The former US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said last year that American carriers should carry thousands of the aircraft, making the carrier redundant.
Super-stealth aircraft would be so cheap they could fly at an hour or two above the air space of rival naval carriers, he said.
The US Marine Corps and other forces opposed Gates’ idea because they warned the aircraft would increase the risk of an accident.
The MIT project, led by a professor from the university, said the design could be extended to six-metre aircraft.
Researchers are planning to use the test project to develop commercially available systems to protect against military radar and other signals.
Artificial intelligence expert Dr Silvanus Morleuvil described the project as “encouraging”.
He added: “The university is not the only institute working on a new material … this is an excellent direction that is developing in more than one country.”