NASA And MIT Collaborate On Next-Gen Flexible Airplane Wing Design


Engineers from MIT and NASA have developed a new airplane wing that can change its shape, promising energy efficiency and improved flight performance.

The futuristic design is made up of hundreds of identical pieces that contain a mix of flexible and stiff materials, allowing the wing to adjust based on each stage of flight.

The team has tested the airplane wing redesign through a wind tunnel with great success. They described the radical new airplane wing in a paper published in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.

An Airplane Wing That Adapts

Traditional airplane wings require separate movable pieces to perform certain tasks such as flaps and ailerons. However, the new design has the capacity to change the shape of parts of or even the entire wing for the airplane to take off, change direction, and land.

The researchers explained that each stage of flight requires different sets of optimal parameters. In comparison, traditional aircraft wings are not designed to maximize performance during any stage of flight.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack," said Nicholas Cramer, a research engineer at NASA Ames and the lead author of the study. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively."

This was achieved by using hundreds of small identical parts arranged in a lattice structure that creates large empty spaces. The result is a wing that has the structural stiffness of a rubber-like polymer and the extreme lightness of an aerogel.

The mechanical metamaterial, according to the researchers, has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter. Rubber has a density of 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter.

The team reported that the new airplane design performed better than expected when tested in the high-speed wind tunnel at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Futuristic Airplanes

The wing they tested was hand-made, but the researchers said that the repetitive parts can be manufactured by a swarm of autonomous robots for mass production. They have also developed a new system that cuts the time needed to build each part to just 17 seconds.

The researchers also foresee the design to be used in other structures with wing-like blades such as wind turbines or even space-based structures.

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