MIT and NASA Engineers Reveal Aircraft Wing That Changes Shape During Flight

Thursday, 04 April 2019 - 11:11AM
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Thursday, 04 April 2019 - 11:11AM
MIT and NASA Engineers Reveal Aircraft Wing That Changes Shape During Flight
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Image: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center
A team of engineers from NASA and MIT have designed, built, and tested a new type of aircraft wing constructed from thousands of identical lightweight "building blocks" that subtly – and automatically – adjust through twisting and bending under various flight conditions to optimize aerodynamic performance. The researchers tested their wing in a NASA wind tunnel facility and published their findings in the May, 2019 issue of the journal Smart Materials and Structures. 


Artists concept shows integrated wing-body aircraft, enabled by the new construction method being assembled by a group of specialized robots, shown in orange.
Credits — Image: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center


The result is a lightweight, energy-efficient wing that adjusts itself to each phase of aircraft flight from takeoff to landing. The secret of this is the building-block lattice that MIT News writes, "forms a mechanical 'metamaterial' that combines the structural stiffness of a rubber-like polymer and the extreme lightness and low density of an aerogel." 


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


Wing assembly is seen under construction, assembled from hundreds of identical subunits. The wing was tested in a NASA wind tunnel.
Credits - Image: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center


In essence, the wing responds in the same way that a bird adjusts its wings in flight. "Something like a condor will lock its joints in while it's cruising, and then it (adjusts) its wing to a more optimal shape for its cruising, and then when it wants to do a more aggressive maneuver it'll unlock its shoulder. That's a similar response to what we're doing here," Cramer told CNN


Because the components are designed to be easily mass produced – each building block takes just 17 seconds to create – and assembled by autonomous robots, the wing could usher in a new era of both manufacturing and high-performance aircraft, though not necessarily passenger travel. "As much as I would like to say that we're going to replace Boeing and Airbus with this, I know that's probably not the reality," MIT researcher and study co-author Ben Jenett told Popular Science. "But I do see a lot of bleeding-edge applications [for this technology] where traditional approaches just fail."


Still, the modular design of the plane affords it something that conventional aircraft doesn't: portability. In speaking with CNN about the wing's design, Cramer noted that "all those [design components] go very well with being launched into orbit and being assembled into a very large space structure... So that's a very attractive application that we're actively investigating — the robotic assembly of these lattice-like structures in space."

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