What is Dick Rutan up to now?
October 15, 2002 8:09 PM   Subscribe

What is Dick Rutan up to now? The reigning master of innovation in aerospace is up to something, as shown in the linked photo. But what is it? Rutan is also helping to bring us rocket powered airplanes and, of course, flew Voyager around the world not so long ago.
posted by billsaysthis (22 comments total)
Surely you could have given us a bit more to go on. What are we supposed to say when all there is is a photo of some weird airplane?

What's he up to? Innovative shit, obviously. End discussion.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:17 PM on October 15, 2002

Someday they'll build cities around this thing.

But whatever it is, whatever it does, I gotta say it is definitely cool looking.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 8:28 PM on October 15, 2002

fff, if I had a clue or could get one through Google, would I have posted it in quite this manner? One of my favorite things about mefi is the wild-ass speculation, stop being a partypooper!
posted by billsaysthis at 8:50 PM on October 15, 2002

It's pretty obvious that this is one of those giant transforming robots we've seen so much of in the Japanese cinema.
posted by fatbobsmith at 8:52 PM on October 15, 2002

Hmm... you picqued my curiosity --I am a former aero engineer, Dick Rutan kicks ass.

Anyway, dickrutan.com, has no more info, but it does say that his latest interest was in re-usable rockets.

The craft in the photo is apparently built for medium-speed, medium-altitude flying --narrow but long wings, fuselages not deisgned for high-speed. The engines are too small to be turbofans, so they are most likely turbojets or some weird rocket-ramjet-turbojet mix --an outlandish guess yes, but as his previous project was into exotic engines, anything goes.

The other out-of-the-ordinary element is the canopy. My guess is that he's trying to save weight by not breaking the structure of the composite (apparently) fuselage for a glass canopy and he's instead using portholes, which kind of makes sense, but contradicts my previous guess (high-speed flying through portholes? unlikely).

Bottom line: I got no clue. I don't see the point of this aircraft as it's too elaborate to be just an engine tester and it's planform has been done before (it's basically a composite Lightning without the integrated horizontal tail).
posted by costas at 8:53 PM on October 15, 2002

Sorry, I edited out the high-speed guess part and forgot to change the 4th paragraph...
posted by costas at 8:54 PM on October 15, 2002

costas: looking at the scale of the aircraft, do you think it's possible that it might be unmanned? The central pod looks pretty cramped for a person. The portholes could be for cameras or other sensors--having those instead of a canopy might trim costs. On the other hand, since the plane is probably made out of Neptunian ubercomposites, is cost even a concern?

Oh, now I see your comment about the weight of portholes vs. a canopy...

Speculation is fun!
posted by tss at 9:13 PM on October 15, 2002

It reminded me of the Predator drone, for some reason.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:14 PM on October 15, 2002

See also the "Scaled" entry here, specifically the listing for the "Scaled Proteus" aircraft.
posted by tss at 9:26 PM on October 15, 2002

Yeah, I remember the Proteus.

NASA has a pretty substantial gallery here.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:29 PM on October 15, 2002

Whoops, those images are all...uh...huge.

You may want to go for the small version or even the medium unless you have an OC-48 or something. Sheesh.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 9:31 PM on October 15, 2002

Okay I'm assuming those front wheels come/fall off when the thing takes off, since they look like they muck up the aerodynamics pretty good, and don't appear to be retractable.... can that be right? How would it land?
posted by strike3 at 9:37 PM on October 15, 2002

Judging by the copious volume in the leg struts(?) I'd say either he wants to be the Salvador Dali of airplane design, or this is a design for a nonstop round-the-world aircraft built to do it a lot faster than Voyager did, and with just one person, probably with autopilots for when they sleep.

That's my guess, anyhow.
posted by kfury at 10:49 PM on October 15, 2002

But what is it?

Maybe it's a diving plane for crabs.
posted by homunculus at 11:33 PM on October 15, 2002

kfury: I wondered about those too, but if you look at the size of the main wheels, it seems that most of the volume should be taken up by the undercarriage. At any rate, this is not a Voyager 2: the wings are not wide enough, the span is too small, and you'd be nuts to use a jet engine. OTOH Rutan is nuts (the good kind of nuts), so you never know...
posted by costas at 12:14 AM on October 16, 2002

The Proteus was a HALO (high-altitude, long-operation) aircraft. Rutan and investors thought -- during the telecom boom of the 90s -- that it could replace satellites in certain applications. Imagine one of these circling above LA 24/7 reflecting low-power satphone calls, or creating a localized 500-channel dish market. That dream appears over; not much news in two years. But the clue here:

The flights were conducted under the sponsorship of the NASA Office of Earth Science with funding provided by the NOAA/DoD/NASA Integrated Program Office. This sponsorship includes evaluation of the Proteus aircraft as an atmospheric science and remote sensing airborne platform at altitudes as high as 60,000 feet.

Since Scaled developed the Raptor UAV, a predecessor of the Predator and Global Hawk, this isn't that surprising a move. That weird multi-eyed thing is clearly some kind of sensor pod -- presumably for this prototype they're testing it in the atmospheric-science civilian configuration.

Another possibility is that he's still gunning for the X-Prize, a $10M contest to be won by the first private company to take 3 men to the edge of space twice in one week; Proteus was always assumed to be the first stage -- launcher -- of a rocket-based second-stage vehicle. But the design in this photo doesn't look at all like a cargo workhorse that would be needed; nor does it look like the second stage, although that might explain the strange configuratoin. I think it's standalone.
posted by dhartung at 1:03 AM on October 16, 2002

Don't forget Dick's brother Burt Rutan. He is the actual designer (and in some cases co-designer) behind a lot of the planes (including the Voyager) that Dick flies. I wrote to him a few years back when I had aspirations of Aeronautical Engineering and his company sent me a whole bunch of stuff. Still got it to...
posted by PenDevil at 1:07 AM on October 16, 2002

It reminds me of Luigi Colani's plane designs.
posted by jonathanbell at 1:08 AM on October 16, 2002

This plane was no doubt made at Scaled Composites, which is run by Burt Rutan, the design genius behind most of Dick Rutan's piloting successes.

This plane appears to be an improved version of Burt Rutan's Proteus, and seems to be designed to fulfill the same role - it goes up to great heights and just kind of hangs around up there like a satellite. This makes it ideal for communication, recon, and scientific uses.

It borrows in part from Rutan's design for the Advanced Technology Technical Transport (ATTT) -- note the very similar tail design. This should increase the payload and improve performance. Because Rutan doesn't make use of a long center fuselage, he is able to ditch the two-wing design we see in both the Proteus and the ATTT.

I suspect that this new design is somewhat smaller, lighter, and will perform better than the Proteus, while potentially carrying as much (if not more) fuel -- those twin glider bodies look like big fuel tanks to me.

Features of note about this plane:
- The use of portholes suggests that this plane is pressurized for high altitude (the previous test versions of Proteus weren't), and was designed for scientific/recon uses.

- It uses a pair of engines similar to that used by the Proteus -- perhaps the new Williams International FJ44-2C engines.

- It can probably reach altitudes of at least 65,000 feet.

- The Proteus was designed to support a 2-man crew and a pilot, but this design seems to be smaller and may support a smaller crew.

- It should be able to carry 2,000 pound payloads up to maximum altitude and remain on station for up to 16 hours. This makes it well suited to military communication and intelligence work.

- It can also carry much heavier payloads to a high altitude for less time. This is significant, because one of the previously announced potential uses for Proteus was to carry a single-stage rocket up to altitude, allowing it to carry space tourists to a height of 80 miles. Such a rocket could potentially be fitted under the very high center fuselage, and would probably feature reusable, easily refillable engines, allowing for multiple trips a day.

Lovely design, isn't it? Kinda looks like a Klingon attack cruiser, though...
posted by insomnia_lj at 1:53 AM on October 16, 2002

I'd just like to say that I got to meet the Rutans in Oshkosh when I was in middle school. That should have gotten me some pretty good geek cred at the time, I thought. Instead I got a lot of blank stares.
posted by putzface_dickman at 4:47 AM on October 16, 2002

Kinda looks like a Klingon attack cruiser, though...

I'm sure this isn't the first time designers got inspiration from Hollywood. LOL
posted by billsaysthis at 6:34 AM on October 16, 2002

My friend (who built his own Rutan airplane, with his Dad) tells me this: "Dick Rutan has little to do with the Proteus, pictured. It's yet another project of Scaled Composites , which is his brother Burt's company. They do quite a lot of work together, but Burt is the designer and Dick is the test pilot. The rocket-powered Long-Eze is Dick's project. The Proteus is a multi-mission, convertable platform that will eventually be used to launch rockets into space, after lifting them to 70,000' or so. Another mission will be to act as very sub-orbital satellite platforms. The idea there is that many satellite applications are not feasible because of the extreme altitude required of an orbiting object. But these planes can be very efficient at 70,000' or so. Pop a satellite in the belly and fly it over Los Angeles for multi-week missions -- much cheaper than launching a satellite."
posted by LeLiLo at 12:08 PM on October 16, 2002

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