How Engineers Created a Flying 'Star Wars' X-Wing (2024)

At the Smithsonian |

The starfighter-outfitted drone was the first remotely piloted aircraft of its kind and size approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for public demonstration

How Engineers Created a Flying 'Star Wars' X-Wing (1)

How Engineers Created a Flying 'Star Wars' X-Wing (2)

Seeing a Star Wars X-wing starfighter won’t require a trip to a galaxy far, far away.

This year, just in time for May 4—Star Wars Day—the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum has unveiled a drone outfitted with X-wing body shells that resembles the popular spacecraft from the films. The display resides at the museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

The large drone, a Boeing CV2 Cargo Air Vehicle (CAV), represents a milestone for remotely piloted aircraft in the United States, says Roger Connor, who curates the museum’s vertical flight collection. Weighing more than 1,000 pounds, the drone was the first remotely piloted electrical vertical takeoff and landing aircraft of its size approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for public demonstration, Connor says.

In December 2019, two drones fitted with add-ons to look like X-wings, including the one displayed at the museum, flew above a crowd of spectators for the opening of the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The aircraft, which has a wingspan of 20 feet 2 inches and is more than 24 feet long and 7 feet tall with the X-wing costume on, will be on loan indefinitely from Disney and Boeing.

“It really captures the popular imagination,” Connor says. “Kids are obviously going to be very excited about it, and it’s a way to really help inspire the next generation that are going to be dealing with this technology.”

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Two years prior to the drones’ debut at Disney World, Boeing began development of an all-electric uncrewed CAV that could carry about 500 pounds of cargo for military and commercial use.

“You could have business-to-business-type delivery,” Connor says. “If you’ve got a factory complex that’s spread out over a wide area, you can move parts. … You can have an on-demand drone fly out to you. It’s much cheaper than you could do with a helicopter.”

But Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of Disney, had other ideas in mind. The company figured this technology could be used for entertainment. Disney and Boeing first met in early 2017 to discuss the plans.

“We’re always looking at: What are some new cool things we could do?” says Scott Trowbridge, the senior creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering. “How can we make really cool new experiences? What are some new technologies that allow our guests and audiences to think they’re seeing magic, when, of course, in reality, maybe behind the scenes, it’s just a bunch of high technology? We always looked at the sky as a canvas to do some really, really cool things.”

The X-wing on display is roughly three-quarters of the size of one in the fictional world—picture a large SUV. It is made mostly of carbon fiber, consists of 12 electric motors and can be flown for about five minutes. The skin of the aircraft that makes it look like an X-wing is produced with ultraviolet reactive ink.

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“When it’s actually flying, we light this with basically a big, giant blacklight spotlight that makes the parts we want you to see super visible, and the parts we don’t want you to see just go away black in the darkness,” Trowbridge says.

At the Galaxy’s Edge demonstration in 2019, the drones were controlled by operators based in a ground control station, says David Neely, the director of autonomous behaviors at Boeing. The operators were highly trained pilots.

The drone will likely stay on the floor at the museum for “a couple of years,” Connor says, before being suspended in the air like other aircraft in its collection.

Star Wars fans might realize that the X-wing on display isn’t specific to a particular pilot or design. “It’s our blue squadron,” Trowbridge explains. “It’s part of the overall Galaxy’s Edge story.”

And while a larger X-wing starfighter prop that was used in the 2019 film Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker hangs at the National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, D.C., the drone unveiled this month may inspire viewers in a different way.

“This one flies,” Connor says.

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Kelyn Soong | READ MORE

Kelyn Soong is a D.C. area-based freelance writer. He was previously a staff writer fortheWashington Postand editor and reporter forWashington City Paper. His work has also appeared inUSA Today, theBaltimore Sunand Voice of America.

How Engineers Created a Flying 'Star Wars' X-Wing (2024)


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