NASA and MIT Unveil Radical New Wing Design
Matthew Greenwood posted on April 19, 2019 |
Flexible structure can change shape to maximize aerodynamic efficiency and performance.

A team of engineers from NASA and MIT has completely redesigned the aircraft wing.

The wing is assembled from hundreds of identical small pieces—and it can adjust its shape to control the aircraft’s flight. The invention has the potential to revolutionize aircraft design and production, maintenance, and flight efficiency.

The new wing discards the conventional design of separate movable surfaces such as ailerons and flaps to maneuver the aircraft. Instead, by incorporating a mix of rigid and flexible components in its structure, the entire wing can deform to take on different aerodynamic properties as needed.

The structure is made up of small triangular pieces with thin struts bolted together to form a lightweight lattice framework which is covered with a thin layer of similar polymer material. As a result, the wing is much lighter and more efficient than conventional wings.

Standard wings have to function during different stages of flight: takeoff and landing, cruising and maneuvering. Rather than being optimized for one of those stages, they have to compromise performance to be able to function adequately during each one. In contrast, the new wing can adjust its shape to maximize performance at each step of the flight.

“You can make any geometry you want,” said Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student at MIT and one of the paper’s co-authors.

The wing can even respond automatically to changes in its aerodynamic load by changing shape—potentially reducing or eliminating the need for motors or cables that conventional wings rely on to make adjustments.

NASA tests another experimental wing design.

The pieces that make up the new wing’s structure were made using injection molding with polyethylene resin in a complex 3D mold. The resulting lattice has a density of just 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter. Each part can be printed in just 17 seconds—which means the production method could be scalable for industrial use.

“Now we have a manufacturing method,” said Jenett. While there’s an upfront investment in tooling, once that’s done, “the parts are cheap,” he says. “We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same.”

The new wing design, which is about the size of a one-seater plane wing, was tested in a NASA wind tunnel. Its results were better than anticipated and have been published in Smart Materials and Structures.

“The fact that most aircraft are the same shape is because of expense. It’s not always the most efficient shape,” said Jenett. While further testing needs to be done, the prototype wing shows great potential to create lighter and more efficient planes—and to disrupt conventional aerospace manufacturing.

Read more about other cutting-edge wing technologies at Gull Wing Morphing Research Aims to Enhance Flight Design.

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