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Shape-shifting aircraft wings offer new concept

April 22nd, 2019 / By: / Out There

MIT and NASA’s morphing wing assembly is seen under construction, assembled from hundreds of identical subunits. The wing was tested in a NASA wind tunnel. Photo: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center.

MIT and NASA researchers have developed a new shape-shifting approach to aircraft wing construction. An article in MIT News says the system is designed to automatically deform, in part or in total, in response to the roll and pitch of a plane. The flexibility of the new wing assembly system relies on hundreds of identical pieces and a mix of flexible and stiff components.

The design is described in a paper published in Smart Materials and Structures, co-authored by research engineer Nicholas Cramer at NASA Ames in California; MIT alumnus Kenneth Cheung, PhD, now at NASA Ames; Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms; and eight other scientists.

The structure includes matchstick-like struts making up triangles composed mostly of space. The tiny sub-assemblies are bolted together to form a lightweight open lattice framework, which is then covered with a thin polymer similar to that used in the framework. All together, a metamaterial is created that combines the low density and lightness of an aerogel and the stiffness of a rubber-like polymer, which gives it the ability to constantly deform, the team found.

A lighter structure than conventional metal or composite designs may mean greater energy efficiency. The flexibility of the new wing may also mean a sea change in design. “You can make any geometry you want,” Jenett said. “The fact that most aircraft are the same shape is because of expense. It’s not always the most efficient shape.” 

The team’s new wing is about the same size as found on a single-seater airplane. Similar assemblies, the article says, are projected to be useful for wind turbines, construction in space, for bridges and in other high-performance structures.