Research

MIT Engineers Develop Airplane Wing That Can ‘Shape-Shift’

MIT Engineers Develop Airplane Wing That Can ‘Shape-Shift’

This approach, researchers hope, could provide a boost in production, flight, and maintenance efficiency, yielding greater flexibility in future design and manufacturing. Typical wing designs have separate moveable surfaces such as ailerons to control the roll and pitch of the plane. Each of the individual pieces is made from a polymer material when they have been bolted together the pieces from an open lattice framework. The wings are also much lighter than standard wings as they are made out of a lightweight lattice framework, giving them a density of 5.6kg per cubic metre. The new wing structure is made of thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts and is made up of mostly empty space.

The researchers can already deform the wing to an optimal shape for takeoff, landing, maneuvers, and cruising, but work is underway to make the morphing passive.

During flight, the wing can alter its form to better control a plane's momentum and direction.

You won't see MIT's wings taking off from an airport near you anytime soon, but the concept is exciting. The design was tested in a NASA wind tunnel. The team designed a wing that lacks motors and cables for deformation and uses a system that automatically responds to changes in aerodynamic loading.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack, " research engineer Nicholas Cramer said " We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively".

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Cheung and others demonstrated the basic underlying principle a few years ago, producing a wing about a meter long, comparable to the size of typical remote-controlled model aircraft. The team is now testing a wing that is comparable to the size of the wing in a single-seater aircraft. "We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same". By way of comparison, rubber has a density of about 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter.

The fact that the new design is built from tiny subunits means that the variety of potential shapes for a finished wing could be greatly expanded.

"You can make any geometry you want". Simple building, testing and modification could allow greater flexibility in design and manufacture, while its light weight and adaptability could make aircraft much more efficient - a key goal for the aerospace sector as manufacturers and operators seek to counter rising emissions.

In the near future, aircraft could look substantially different from what we are used to today, particularly when it comes to the shape of their wings.


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