Changing on the fly

NASA and MIT unveiled a new type of aeroplane wing able to change its shape during flight.


Typical wing designs have separate moveable surfaces that can be set in motion to control the flight when needed. This function is similar to that of the flaps, which are deployed to reduce the plane's speed. Made of hundreds of small identical components, the new wing can change its shape entirely. These components are bolted together to form a lightweight lattice framework covered with a thin layer of polymer material.

A wing changing its shape. Photos: news.mit.edu.

According to the designers, this approach can be used to make complex engineering systems and facilities, including bridges, turbines, and antennas.

According to MIT, this will facilitate aircraft production and maintenance. Its light weight also makes the new wing more energy efficient than conventional metal and composite designs. Being nearly as stiff as rubber, it has a much lower density (5.6 kg/m3 vs 1,500 kg/m3).

The wing comes with a system that automatically responds to external changes and adapts to aerodynamic loading conditions thanks to the careful design of wing components and having struts of varying stiffness or flexibility in appropriate places.

Although the test prototype was manufactured manually, later versions of the wing are set to be assembled automatically using special minirobots. Scientists are planning to start working on the assemblers shortly.

The wing has already been successfully tested in a NASA wind tunnel. According to its creators, this approach can be used to make other complex engineering systems and facilities, including antennas, wind turbines and bridges.

Photo: nasa.gov.


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