Russian manufacturer Airship Initiative Design Bureau Aerosmena plans to build several flying saucer-shaped airships by 2024. Credit: Aerosmena.

  • Tungsteno

Flying saucers are coming

Some projects have succeeded in developing aircraft that looked like they were piloted by extraterrestrials. Although flying saucers are no longer just part of the collective imagination of science fiction, they have barely taken to the skies. What's the reason?

ISABEL RUBIO ARROYO | Tungsteno

In 1967, six flying saucers emitting an ominous hum and filled with a strange liquid mysteriously appeared across southern England. What at first appeared to be a paranormal phenomenon triggered a major police and military operation. But despite expectations of extraterrestrial life, it turned out to be simply a student prank. For decades, various projects have sought to make the flying saucer fantasy a reality, and even today some companies are trying to resurrect these aircraft. Although their design is deeply rooted in popular culture and in the collective imagination, the truth is that the flying machines that usually soar across the skies have never been saucer shaped.... Why?

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were already those who considered building aircraft similar in shape to flying saucers. In fact, before the First World War, Cedric Lee and G. Tilghman Richards in the UK built aircraft with flat ring-shaped or annular wings. After several attempts, they succeeded in making this type of aircraft stable in the air.

 

Cedric Lee and G. Tilghman Richards built a series of airships with a novel ring-shaped flat wing in the early 20th century. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 

Unbeknownst to them, the Dutch painter and sculptor Alexander Weygers patented in 1944 the flying disc-shaped aircraft that we now call a flying saucer under the name Discopter. Other designs were to follow, for example the Vought V-173, funded by the US Navy during World War II, and its descendant, the Vought XF5U-1. These experimental aircraft, nicknamed "Flying Pancakes" because of their disc shape, made multiple flights between 1942 and 1947.

 

Hurdles to filling the sky with flying saucers

 

Although the disc shape is attractive, flying a saucer-shaped craft poses multiple challenges. For starters, the circular wings are inefficientaccording to the aviation magazine Hush-Kit. Under normal conditions they create a lot of drag, which the aircraft has to overcome in order to take off, and thus it needs a lot of power. Even so, some people have managed to fly these strange-looking aircraft.

Once in the sky, another drawback is the difficulty in maintaining control. "For radially symmetric designs, low-speed stability is likely to be a significant problem," Hush-Kit notes. But if frisbees can travel significant distances with relative stability, why can't a flying saucer? This would probably be easier if the aircraft were unmanned.

 

The circular wings of the flying saucers can be inefficient and make it difficult to control the aircraft. Credit: Aerosmena.

 

But if there is a pilot, it is normal to keep them oriented in the direction of flight. To achieve this with a rotating disc would be technically very complex. Another dilemma would be where exactly to situate the pilot. If they are placed in the centre of the disc, they will have limited visibility. Unless the device is equipped with cameras, the pilot would not be able to see what is going on underneath the aircraft, which could make landing it particularly tricky.

 

Flying saucers that don't come from outer space

 

Despite all these obstacles, there are still those who dream of seeing saucer-shaped aircraft take to the skies. For example, a team of Romanian engineers has developed a fully functional flying saucer prototype called ADIFO. "The aerodynamics behind this aircraft is the result of more than two decades of work and is very well reasoned in hundreds of pages and confirmed by computer simulations and wind tunnel tests," Razan Sabie, one of its inventors, explains to Vice. The device, just over a metre in diameter, is able to take flight and move through the air in any direction. With a propulsion system and propellers for vertical take-off and landing, it is designed for supersonic flight. 

 

A team of Romanian engineers have developed a fully functional flying saucer prototype. Credit: ADIFO.

 

Another ambitious project is that of Russian manufacturer Airship Initiative Design Bureau Aerosmena, which plans to build several flying saucer-shaped airships by 2024. In theory, these airships will be capable of carrying up to 600 tonnes of cargo and reaching 250 kilometres per hour. Loaded with up to 620,000 cubic metres of helium and with a range of up to 8,000 kilometres, they will supposedly be able to load and unload goods anywhere, regardless of whether or not there is a runway.

"The transportation of goods using such [a design] is carried out according to a simple door-to-door scheme, which will help to [reduce] costs for logistics and warehouses," says Sergei V. Bendin, CEO of Aerosmena. An article published on the specialised portal Air Cargo Eye indicates that this Russian project is not just "hot air" and highlights the ability of these future airships to operate without the need for ground infrastructure, i.e. ports, roads, airports or runways. Furthermore, he stresses that they "can fly anywhere at any time of the day or night, for days and even weeks without landing."

Given the technical difficulties and our prior experience with flying saucers, the chances of such devices revolutionising the aviation sector don’t seem particularly high. However, if such projects do go ahead, who knows whether we will see these aircraft in the sky in the future. Instead of being manned by extraterrestrial life, these flying saucers would travel around the planet thanks to human pilots or even autonomously.

 

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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