NASA and MIT researchers show off new flexible airplane wing

New way of fabricating aircraft wings could enable radical new designs such as this concept which could be more efficient for some applications. Image credit Eli Gershenfeld NASA’s Ames Research Center

New way of fabricating aircraft wings could enable radical new designs such as this concept which could be more efficient for some applications. Image credit Eli Gershenfeld NASA’s Ames Research Center

The lattice consists of thousands of triangular struts, meaning the wing is much emptier than a conventional wing design, which in turn allows it to be much lighter.

The wings of aircraft today are complex systems with lots of moving flaps and components controlled by hydraulics or cables depending on the application.

Since the wing could adjust to the particular characteristics of each stage of flight (takeoff, landing, steering, etc.), it could perform better than traditional wings.

The wing is able to match the shape to the loads at different angles of attack. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively". It was presented a few years ago, but now, the researchers have developed a way to manufacture the individual parts for the wing using injection molding.

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The fact that the new design is built from tiny subunits means that the variety of potential shapes for a finished wing could be greatly expanded. "The fact that most aircraft are the same shape is because of expense".

A very lightweight wing that can deform to the optimal shape for each flying situation results in a big increase in flight efficiency, which in turn should lead to significant fuel savings. The design was tested in a NASA wind tunnel, and the results covered in the journal Smart Materials and Structures, coauthored by research engineer Nicholas Cramer at NASA Ames in California; MIT alumnus Kenneth Cheung SM '07 PhD '12, now at NASA Ames; Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student in MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms; and eight others.

"Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas", Aurora Flight Sciences structures researcher Daniel Campbell told MIT News.

The hand-assembled prototype wing, which went through testing in a NASA wind tunnel, is made up of hundreds of small identical parts.

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