Published: Wed, April 03, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

NASA, MIT Design Hollow Morphing Airplane Wing

NASA, MIT Design Hollow Morphing Airplane Wing

Assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, the new approach of wing construction could afford greater flexibility in the design and manufacturing of future aircraft - thus making air travel far more efficient.

The researchers unveiled a concept for a redesigned wing on Monday that they believe would ultimately reduce costs and increase performance for future airplanes. The wing that MIT and NASA researchers have developed would be capable of moving entirely. It's creators say the efficient design may boost aircraft production, flight, and maintenance efficiency.

The wing's parts are arranged in a lattice structure that creates a large amount of empty space and covered in a thin polymer material. With this technology, we may most likely split far from the "tube with wings" design and use a progressively efficient setup - potentially an integrated body and wing structure. 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".

During flight, the wing can alter its form to better control a plane's momentum and direction.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack", says Cramer, the paper's lead author. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively". And, the carefully positioned struts allow the wing to change shape automatically in response to changes in aerodynamic loading conditions.

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MIT alumni Kenneth Cheung and a team of engineers demonstrated the basic principle of how the wing works a few years back when they showcased it on a wing that measured roughly about a meter long - the size that would normally be used on a remote-controlled model aircraft.

Unlike the prototype that was built by hand, the real wing could be easily assembled by a swarm of small, simple, autonomous assembly robots.

There is an upfront investment in tooling, but once that's paid for, "the parts are cheap", he said. “We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same.”. The lattice reportedly has the same stiffness as rubber, but with much lower density - 5.6kg per m, compared to 1,500kg.

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 engineers will undoubtedly continue to make adjustments to flawless their design; however, they said the results are promising.

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