NASA, MIT engineers re-imagine airplane wing, unveil futuristic new design

Olive Hawkins
April 3, 2019

The promise: A wing made this way could allow future aircraft wing designs to become far more flexible, according to the scientists at NASA and MIT who worked together on the research. Instead of having to lift a flap or move an aileron, a pilot could simple maneuver the plane, and the wing would change shape automatically. Their new structure is a lightweight lattice framework, made of thousands of repeating, tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts, covered in a thin polymer layer.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack", NASA research engineer Nicholas Cramer told MIT News. The new version, about five times as long, is comparable in size to the wing of a real single-seater plane and could be easy to manufacture. While the meter-long model they created was hand assembled, the process was designed to be repetitive, so that in the future, small, autonomous robots will be able to assemble the wings.

Each phase of a flight-takeoff and landing, cruising, maneuvering, etc. -has its own set of optimal wing parameters.

Because there would be so much room left for optimizing these features, the energy costs would lower drastically, in addition to making whatever aircraft they're placed on much easier to control than ever before. In comparison, traditional aircraft wings are not created to maximize performance during any stage of flight.

MIT graduate student Benjamin Jenett told MIT News that during the test the wing performed well above expectations.

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In a paper in the journal Smart Materials and Structures, the research team explains how it has radically redesigned the airplane wing. It doesn't just look cool, it behaves much differently than previous wing designs. Researchers used injection molding with polyethylene resin to produce the individual subunits, taking a mere 17 seconds to pump out each one. “We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same.”.

“You can make any geometry you want, ” he says.

"Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas". For example, it could boost the development of aircraft with integrated body and wing structures-which would be more efficient-and other high-performance structures, such as wind-turbine blades.

The team included researchers at Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley at Santa Cruz, NASA Langley Research Center, Kaunas University of Technology in Lithuania, and Qualified Technical Services, Inc., in Moffett Field, California.

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