A team comprised of engineers from NASA and MIT have now built and tested an airplane wing that can change shape in flight. The wing material is a fine lattice of polymer pieces which are all identical. The research group has also published their findings in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.
The physical wing was tested in a NASA wind tunnel and will allow for control of pitch and roll without the need for ailerons. In flight, the wing can morph in a number of ways, either changing shape at the edges for flaps, or deforming itself into an entirely new shape.. The structure is made up of components that are both stiff and flexible. These are assembled into a lattice framework and then covered with another polymer compound.
The wing has decreased weight for better efficiency. Additional hardware does not need to be bolted on for flaps and ailerons. Each of the subassemblies is made up of tiny triangles of struts that are each the size of a matchstick. As a result, the wing itself is mostly made of air.
The design is also smart. Designers describe that wing geometry relates to the various phases of a flight. The material reacts to aerodynamic loading in order to sense whether the plane is involved in a takeoff, landing, banking, or any other aspect of the flight.
The wing that has been tested and is the subject of the journal article is large enough for use on a single seat airplane, although such implementation has not yet been attempted. The system also includes autonomous assembly robotics which create the wing. The research paper relating to this auto-printing system has not yet been published.
The current wing represents a marked improvement over the previous prototype, which was too small for actual use. In particular, the creation of each piece of lattice microassembly took several minutes. With the new printing technology, each piece can now be churned out in 17 seconds. This makes a scalable implementation of the wing much more realistic.
The material is also being considered for different applications, including wind turbine blades, bridges, space structures.