NASA, MIT test wild shape-shifting airplane wing

NASA and MIT researchers show off new flexible airplane wing

NASA, MIT test wild shape-shifting airplane wing

The wing can change shape to control the plane's flight.

"The result is a wing that is much lighter, and thus much more energy efficient, than those with conventional designs, whether made from metal or composites", the team says. The wings research team describe how the plane is made of "thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts" which results in a framework of mainly empty space. Traditional wing designs are a compromise of the best shapes of a wing that are required for each different stage of flight from takeoff to cruising.

Not only does this new wing show that the concept scales up to a size that could carry a person, but it also demonstrates a new manufacturing process that cuts the time needed to produce each individual structure down from several minutes to just 17 seconds.

For reference, regular wings, which are made from rubber have a density of about 1,500kg per cubic metre. While there's an upfront investment in tooling, once that's done, "the parts are cheap", he says. Simple building, testing and modification could allow greater flexibility in design and manufacture, while its light weight and adaptability could make aircraft much more efficient - a key goal for the aerospace sector as manufacturers and operators seek to counter rising emissions. "It's not always the most efficient shape".

Wing assembly is seen under construction, assembled from hundreds of identical subunits.

The material structure, which is created to be assembled by "swarms" of small assembly robots, could also be adapted for other modern structures such as space antennas or increasingly large wind turbine blades.

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"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 new design isn't limited to air travel, though: The researchers believe it could improve wind turbines as well as help propel spacecraft and make long-lasting, easy-to-repair bridges.

MIT and NASA engineers tested this new wing design in a wind tunnel.

The team included researchers at Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley at Santa Cruz, NASA Langley Research Center, Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, and Qualified Technical Services, Inc., in Moffett Field, California.

The work was supported by the NASA ARMD Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Programme and the MIT Centre for Bits and Atoms.

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