A new type of wing that is built like a puzzle and is capable of adapting to change shape, aims at the creation of lighter and more efficient aircraft.
Researchers at NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have tested the new wing design in a successful wind tunnel.
“The new wing is light and flexible, able to adjust its shape in full flight depending on the needs of the pilot. You can change to the geometric shape you want,” explained Benjamin Jenett from MIT.
The new wing design was tested in a NASA wind tunnel and is described today in a paper 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.
The wings of conventional aircraft are made of metal and composed of heavy materials, so they are not light at all.
hey also include moving parts, such as flaps and ailerons.
But the newly-designed wing is anything but conventional. It actually redefines the definition of a wing.
The new prototype is made of thousands of small triangular structures composed of polymers.
The team of engineers developed these studs from polyethylene resin injected into a mold. The framework of the same was then joined by hand to form a 5-meter-wide wing; a similar size to modern wings used in light aircraft.
The newly-designed wing is covered with a thin layer of polymer and has a density of only 5.6 kilograms per cubic centimeter.
But not only is the new wing extremely light.
It is also VERY flexible.
By strategically placing the triangular structures, researchers can build a wing that changes shape in response to the stress generated around it.
Instead of having to raise or lower a wing or flap, the pilot only worries about maneuvering the plane and the wing will change automatically and adjust into the best available position.
“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.”
As revealed by MIT, the new wing was designed to be as large as could be accommodated in NASA’s high-speed wind tunnel at Langley Research Center, where it performed even a bit better than predicted, Jenett says.