3D-printing could bring supersonic flight back to the skies

(Credit: Boom Supersonic)

A partnership between 3D printing company Stratasys and Boom Supersonic aims to make supersonic travel affordable and routine, 14 years after Concorde’s last flight.

The companies have signed a three-year agreement to help Boom build the world’s first commercially viable supersonic aircraft more quickly.

The Boom XB-1 aims to be ready for a demonstration flight by next year, will fly 2.6 times faster than any other aircraft on the market, and could cut a journey from New York to London from seven hours to just over three.

Boom is one of several aerospace companies exploring additive manufacturing, and it’s hoped that robust 3D-printed parts from Stratasys will accelerate their work. “Supersonic flight has existed for over 50 years, but the technology hasn’t existed to make it affordable for routine commercial travel,” said Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of Boom. “Today’s significant advances in aerodynamics, engine design, additive manufacturing, and carbon fiber composite materials are transforming the industry at all levels. Additive manufacturing helps accelerate development of a new generation of aircraft.”

According to Neil Ashton, Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s eResearch Centre, Boom’s XB-1 will be more efficient than Concorde “thanks to lighter, cheaper composite materials and advances in aerodynamics and jet engines.”

That new generation of aircraft are likely to be smaller than the likes of Concorde, according to Tim Robinson, editor of Aerospace magazine. He told Professional Engineering that they could overcome one of the biggest issues with supersonic travel in the past. “Various people have been looking into the overland sonic booms,” he said. “There are now ways of reducing the noise profile over land which was the big thing that stopped Concorde from being as successful as it could have been.”

Techniques include using conventional engines during take-off, minimising the size and wright of the aircraft, or flying at very high altitudes. However, former Concorde pilot Jock Lowe told PE that there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area. “Personally I don’t think they’re anywhere near it yet,” he said. “We found that the secondary boom on Concorde which was one tenth of the normal boom – like a car door slamming at 50 yards – that was not acceptable. None of them have shown anything like getting the sonic boom minimised. I don’t think they’ve yet cracked supersonic over-flying of populated areas.”

Boom aren’t alone in seeking to revive supersonic flight. Airbus has plans for ‘Concorde Mark 2,’ which it says would cut the journey time between New York and London to just one hour. Meanwhile, a Boston-based start-up called Spike Aerospace is aiming to be airborne by  the early 2020s with a design that seeks to maintain speed by doing away with the cabin windows. The inside of the plane would be covered in curved electronic screens which could show films, or display the view outside.

However, although 3D printing could help bring down costs, there are other hurdles along the path to making supersonic flight commercially viable. “I think one of the key challenges is going to be the engines,” Robinson told PE. “If it’s kind of a niche market to begin with you’ve then got a challenge in convincing the engine manufacturers to invest a lot of money into turning one of their engines into a civil supersonic transport for what might be a quite small market.”

“Technology has obviously come on,” he continued. “There are more efficient engines these days, but the underlying physics of supersonic flight remain the same and that’s the challenge as well as obviously, ‘can you make it profitable’. I think it will be interesting to see what happens.”

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