Shaping X-59 QueSST at Skunk Works®

If you were to walk through the main hangar at Skunk Works® in Palmdale, California, you would notice an orchestra of sound. Whirring and buzzing, drilling and riveting. The volley of activity makes the air feel charged with energy. And if you follow that trail closely, you can pinpoint the origin of the excitement to one location – Assembly Area L, home of the X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) aircraft.

NASA’s first piloted X-plane in decades, X-59 QueSST is a research jet shaped to reduce the loudness of a sonic boom to that of a gentle thump. Think of the difference between riotous thunder shaking your house and your neighbor closing their car door. Its mission will be to collect community response data that NASA can turn over to regulators to establish an acceptable noise standard for commercial supersonic travel over land, overturning a decades-old ban and enabling a new industry of commercial travel.

The Making of an X-Plane

Right now the X-59 program team is hard at work, deploying the latest advanced manufacturing technologies to build the experimental airplane. That work is occurring in three major segments: a single-piece wing, center fuselage and empennage. To date, the team has made significant progress on all three sections of the aircraft. Check out the below time-lapse footage!

The X-59 is more than just the sum of its parts. Its assembly is another unique element of the X-plane’s story. By blending advanced manufacturing tools and processes, such as robotic drilling, optical projection and metrology and model-based engineering with the talent of our engineers and touch labor professionals, the team is condensing aircraft assembly durations so that the team can quickly deliver a quality, affordable product.

Introducing COBRA

Most recently, the X-59 program has leveraged a Combined Operation: Bolting and Robotic AutoDrill system to finish the lower wing skin of the aircraft. Simply known as COBRA, the robotic system drills, countersinks and inspects holes with a quality pass rate over 99.99%. Its use on X-59 marks the first time Lockheed Martin has drilled a production article with the COBRA system, pairing automation and robotics technologies to increase manufacturing speed and accuracy.

But Wait! There’s More!

In true Skunk fashion, the X-59 program has also applied lessons learned from previous programs, like the Advanced Composite Cargo Aircraft program or X-55, to continue to mitigate risk and associated costs.

The Automated Fiber Placement (AFP) machine enables the fabrication of large composite skins and panels with greater efficiency. AFP allows large parts to be created robotically with astonishing precision and tailored lay-up design, successfully reducing the part count in the assembly process – marking yet another advanced manufacturing approach that allows the program to maintain flexibility and agility in a digitally-enabled environment.

A New Era of Commercial Supersonic Flight

In vibrant Assembly Area L, the X-59 program team continues to quickly progress on the airframe build with focus and determination. By employing advanced manufacturing technology, the team is demonstrating the value of Digital Transformation and tracking to mate the aircraft and complete final assembly later this year. Once built, X-59 will take flight in 2021, where after a few check out flights, the aircraft will be turned over to NASA Armstrong. Testing over select communities will take place starting in 2023, bringing us that much closer to a new era of commercial supersonic flight.