Published: Wed, April 03, 2019
Science | By

MIT and NASA engineers demonstrate a new kind of airplane wing

MIT and NASA engineers demonstrate a new kind of airplane wing

Typical wing designs have separate moveable surfaces such as ailerons to control the roll and pitch of the plane. The new wing design could change its shape to create the best shape for each phase of flight.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack", Nicholas Cramer, lead author of the paper from NASA Ames in California, said in a statement. They form a lattice framework that is covered with a layer of the same or similar polymer material as the rest of the framework.

Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student in MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, said: "The wings have the same stiffness, but ours has less than roughly one-thousandth of the density".

The team has tested the airplane wing redesign through a wind tunnel with great success.

The resulting lattice produced by the method had a density of 5.6kg per cubic metre, compared with rubber, which has a density of 1,500kg per cubic metre. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively". However, the researchers say that the wing could easily be assembled by a team of autonomous robots, with each part taking just 17 seconds to produce via injection molding.

There is an upfront investment in tooling, but once that's paid for, "the parts are cheap", he said. The design would also allow for a variety of wing shapes, kind of like using Lego pieces to make airplanes.

The researchers confirmed this new concept is an improvement on their previously tested 3-foot wing, which they built themselves.

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

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. With this technology, we might be able to break away from the "tube with wings" design and utilize a more efficient configuration - possibly an integrated body and wing structure.

"Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas", Aurora Flight Sciences structures researcher Daniel Campbell told MIT News.

The material structure, which is created to be assembled by "swarms" of small assembly robots, could also be adapted for other modern structures such as space antennas or increasingly large wind turbine blades. It could even be used to build space structures, as well as bridges and other high-performance structures.

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