Shape-changing plane wing

Pablo Tucker
April 3, 2019

Instead of relying on "separate movable surfaces" (like wing flaps) to yaw right or left, this new wing can deform its entire body thanks to its unique construction: it's made up of "thousands" of small triangular struts. In any case, imagine a shape-shifting airplane wing - that is the thing that researchers led by NASA and MIT are moving in the direction of. A team of engineers developed a new kind of wing composed of hundreds of individual pieces that could be lighter and more energy-efficient. 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", study co-author and NASA Ames research engineer Nicholas Cramer said in a statement.

How it works: The wing is made from an open, lightweight lattice framework that is covered with a thin layer of polymer material. The design was tested in a NASA wind tunnel.

You won't see MIT's wings taking off from an airport near you anytime soon, but the concept is exciting.


The resulting lattice, he says, has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively". They have also developed a new system that cuts the time needed to build each part to just 17 seconds.

On the off chance that you've had a seat by the window next to the wing of a plane, you've most likely watched as flaps on the wing engage and disengage as a plane takes off and lands. 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. While theres an upfront investment in tooling, once thats done, “the parts are cheap, ” he says.

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. By providing so much more room for optimization, energy costs could be even further reduced, while also making aircrafts easier to control.

"You can make any geometry you want".


The new design isn't limited to air travel, though: The researchers believe it could improve wind turbines as well as help propel spacecraft and make long-lasting, easy-to-repair bridges.

"Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas".

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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