A Package of Progress

April 28, 2015 in Technology, Environment

In Hampton, Va., a giant box made from futuristic composite material sits in a test facility.

This 30-foot-wide container was assembled with a manufacturing process that harkens back to an earlier age of aerospace and allows the box to retain its durability.

And it's being twisted, stretched, bent, pressurized, and eventually broken - all to test just how strong the material actually is.

The box is at NASA Langley Research Center, which has special equipment to test this 10,000-pound double-deck, multibay structure, constructed by Boeing Research & Technology, Boeing's advanced central research and development unit, under a contract with NASA. It is made of stitched, resin-infused composite panels, an advanced structural architecture.

“This concept could be further refined over the next 15 or 20 years for military applications, such as aerial refueling and cargo missions,” said Naveed Hussain, vice president of Aeromechanics with Boeing, Research & Technology. “Because this architecture is lighter yet extremely durable, it could allow our products to be more fuel efficient.”

“They’re going to be able to induce the loads just like you’d see in flight and pressurize it, and take it to the limit…and basically break it,” said Andy Harber, senior project manager, Technology Transition with Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “This is the first time we’ve tried to make integrated structure all at once.”

The box represents part of the center section of a hybrid wing body vehicle, and is about 80 percent to scale. A hybrid wing body vehicle forgoes the conventional tube-and wing- airplane design in favor of a blended triangular tailless aircraft that merges the vehicle’s wing and body. 

The stitched resin infused composite architecture addresses the structural challenges of a pressurized non-circular section.

Stitched resin infused composites are in use in smaller aircraft components on the C-17 Globemaster III military transport aircraft, but have not yet been applied with this unique architecture in this type of critical application.

Unlike composite architectures used in aircraft today, the material system consists of woven carbon fibers infused with epoxy resin. Using what looks like a giant sewing machine, the woven material is stitched together instead of using bonding or bolts, translating to much fewer drilled holes.

The material is then cured with vacuum pressure in an oven, as opposed to a large autoclave, which allows very large parts to be constructed with fewer joints and fasteners.

Just how strong the material is, will be determined in June when tests are complete. The material is being tested at NASA Langley Research Center's unique, large-scale Combined Loads Test System, which can apply up to 2.7 million pounds of stretching force and up to 20 psi of pressurization at the same time.

"What makes the Combined Loads Test System unique is that we’re able to subject large structures to the kind of complicated mechanical and pressure loading conditions that aircraft would feel in flight," said Dawn Jegley, NASA lead technical engineer.

The project is part of NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project, created in 2009 to explore technology to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment over the next 25 years. Projects such as these support Boeing’s environmental strategy, Build a Better Planet, and aim to help improve aviation’s environmental performance in the future.

Boeing contributed funding, expertise, intellectual property and facilities to the project. Results of the testing will be made public for the benefit of aviation and research.

To learn more about the technology behind the multi-bay box, check out the video at the top of this page.

How big is the box? It had to be transported by a special NASA aircraft known as the Super Guppy. Watch the video below for footage of the Super Guppy, which features components from historical Boeing aircraft and has visited two Boeing locations in the past year.