A team of engineers from NASA and MIT have come up with a new kind of airplane wing, and the design has been shared recently. The radical wing features hundreds of small identical pieces. What makes this wing different than the conventional wings? The wing is capable of changing its shape for controlling the plane’s flight in an effective manner. The creators claim that the design is efficient enough for boosting aircraft production, flight, and maintenance efficiency.
The wing has already undergone testing at the NASA wind tunnel. Conventional wing designs have distinct moveable surfaces such as ailerons. But the new wing can move as a whole or simply sections of it thus enabling the pilot to enjoy a more price control over the movement of the aircraft. The wing features stiff and flexible components. Every individual piece has been crafted using a polymer material and bolted together for creating an open lattice framework.
The wing is lighter than the conventional aircraft wings thus renders as more energy efficient. The wing research team says that the wing has been made using ‘thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts’ thus creating a framework of empty space. When the pieces are combined, they create a ‘metamaterial’ that is stiff similar to a polymer but still very light similar to an aerogel.
The conventional wings are a compromise between the best shapes of a wing that are required for different stages of flight. However, the new wing will be able to change shape based on the phase of flight for making sure that optimal design is being used for each phase. The wing will be capable of shapeshifting on its own based on the aerodynamic loading conditions. Cramer, the paper’s lead author, said, ‘We’re able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack. We’re able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively.’
Each individual piece has been made via injection molding and a complex 3D mold. This particular prototype was hand assembled. However, the assembly can be made autonomous as well. A single piece requires 17 seconds for creation. Cramer says, ‘Now we have a manufacturing method, keeping the upfront investment in tooling aside, the parts are cheap. We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same.’
He further said, ‘You can make any geometry you want. The fact that most aircraft are the same shape is because of expense. It’s not always the most efficient shape.’ The paper describing the details of development will be appearing in the journal Smart Materials and Structures, co-authored by research engineer Nicholas Cramer at NASA Ames in California, MIT alumnus Kenneth Cheung SM ’07 PhD ’12, now at NASA Ames; Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms; and eight others.