NASA and MIT Develop Morphing Airplane Wing

Mindy Sparks
April 2, 2019

The design allows for flexibility and even shape-shifting, so the wing can change as it moves through what the researchers poetically call "the phases of a flight"-takeoff and landing, cruising, maneuvering, etc". Their new structure is a lightweight lattice framework, made of thousands of repeating, tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts, covered in a thin polymer layer.

NASA has worked alongside researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to create the new jet which could make air travel much more efficient.

Researchers from NASA and MIT teamed up to rethink plane wings and came up with the idea of assembling them from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, making them easy to maintain and fix, and even more interesting, giving them the flexibility to change shape mid-flight to better control the plane's journey.

"The research shows promise for reducing cost and increasing the performance for large, light weight, stiff structures", Aurora Flight Sciences structures researcher Daniel Campbell, who wasn't involved in the research, told MIT News. And, the carefully positioned struts allow the wing to change shape automatically in response to changes in aerodynamic loading conditions.

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". The passive self-moving wing is only achieved through the very careful placement of struts with different amounts of flexibility or stiffness.

Unlike the prototype that was built by hand, the real wing could be easily assembled by a swarm of small, simple, autonomous assembly robots. "We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same". When assembled, the wing has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter compared with more than 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter for rubber, which has the same stiffness.

"You can make any geometry you want", Jenett said.

The concept is not just limited to wing design, the researchers said, as it could also be used for wind turbine blades, where the ability to do on-site assembly could avoid the problems of transporting ever-longer blades.

The "meta-material" could be particularly suited for integrated body and wing structures, which might be efficient for many applications.

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