A Radically New Type Of Airplane Wing That Changes Shape While Flying

  • Researchers have developed and tested a new kind of wing, assembled from numerous small identical parts.
  • This lightweight wing can alter its shape to control the airplane’s flight.
  • It could substantially improve the efficiency of aircraft production and maintenance.

Most of the existing aircraft feature a predictable shape: two wings attached to a tube. There are also other components like a horizontal stabilizer in the tail and movable modules attached to the crafts which allow the plane to gain altitude and turn.

But researchers at MIT and NASA are working on a new aircraft design that looks radically different from conventional planes. They have developed and tested a new kind of wing, assembled from numerous small identical parts. The wing can alter its shape to control the flight, and could substantially improve the efficiency of the aircraft production and maintenance.

It was tested in NASA wind tunnel. And, NASA is no stranger to transforming airplanes, considering the AeroVironment RQ-14 Dragon Eye, Boeing NB-52B, Boeing X-40, X-45, and a recent 10-engine drone named Greased Lightning.

How It Is Different From Traditional Design?

To handle the roll and pitch of the airplane, traditional wings require individual movable surfaces. The new design, on the other hand, incorporates a mix of flexible and stiff modules, making it possible to deform the entire wing or parts of it.

The small subassemblies are connected with each other and then covered a with a thin film of similar polymer material. This results in a much lighter and energy-efficient wing as compared to traditional designs either made of composites or metals.

Since each stage of a flight — maneuvering, cruising, takeoff, and landing — has its own specific set of wing parameters, the traditional wing is not entirely optimized for any of these. A wing that can dynamically deform as per needs can provide a better configuration for each stage, and thus better efficiency.

Reference: IOPScience | DOI:10.1088/1361-665X/ab0ea2 | MIT

It automatically responds to alterations in its aerodynamic loading parameters and changes its shape. In simple terms, it’s a self-adjusting, passive wing-reconfiguration system.

The length of the new wing is comparable to single-seater airplane’s wing. The individual parts of the wing are made by a well-known manufacturing process called injection molding. It takes only 17 seconds to build a single part. Moreover, the process can be easily incorporated into typical autonomous assembly robots, bringing it to closer to scalable production levels.

New type of airplane wing changes shapeCredit: NASA Ames Research Center

The density of the resulting lattice is 5.6 kg/m3. To put this into perspective, rubber has a density of 1,500 kg/m3. Both have the same rigidity, but the new material is almost 1/1000th times the density of the rubber.

Uses and Applications

Since the overall structure of the wing is made of small subparts, it does not matter what the shape is. Manufacturers can mold it into any shape they want.

This kind of wing can be far more efficient for several other applications. It could raise performance and reduce the cost for large, lightweight, stiff structures. And those can be easily developed, modified, and tested/retested.

Read: 14 Unique Early Experimental Flying Planes

One of the most promising near-future application is wing-like blades of wind turbines (could eliminate the issue of transporting longer blades), and space-based structures, such as antennas.

Leave a reply