NASA and MIT model new airplane wing for flight efficiency

Katie Ramirez
April 3, 2019

(Nanowerk News) A team of engineers has built and tested a radically new kind of airplane wing, assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces.

Engineers from MIT and NASA have developed a new airplane wing that can change its shape, promising energy efficiency and improved flight performance. So, a wing that is constantly deformable would be a significant boost to air travel.

Normally, a plane's wing relies on moveable surfaces that are separate from each other (such as the wing flaps) in order to help the plane move left or right but this new wing is capable of completely changing its entire body.

These tiny components are bolted together to form a lightweight lattice, which is then covered with a thin layer of polymer material. This new wing design could change shape to be in the optimal design for each stage of the flight. Thanks to the adjustable components, the wing performs better than traditional wings.

You won't see MIT's wings taking off from an airport near you anytime soon, but the concept is exciting. In the journal, the researchers described how the wings fared in NASA's wind tunnel testing site. The team designed a wing that lacks motors and cables for deformation and uses a system that automatically responds to changes in aerodynamic loading.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack", study leader Nicholas Cramer, a research computer scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said in the statement.

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"We're able to produce the exact same behaviour you would do actively, but we did it passively". That is done by careful design of the relative positions of struts with different amounts of flexibility allowing the wing to bend in areas in specific ways in response to particular stresses. The new version, about five times as long, is comparable in size to the wing of a real single-seater plane and could be easy to manufacture.

While this prototype wing was hand assembled by students future iterations could easily be built by a swarm of small, simple autonomous assembly robots. “We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same.”.

The resulting lattice produced by the method had a density of 5.6kg per cubic metre, compared with rubber, which has a density of 1,500kg per cubic metre. Because this "metamaterial" is mostly comprised of empty space, it is extremely lightweight - less than one-thousandth the density of rubber.

"You can make any geometry you want".

On the off chance that you've had a seat by the window next to the wing of a plane, you've most likely watched as flaps on the wing engage and disengage as a plane takes off and lands.

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