Radical metamorphosis project from NASA and MIT can revolutionize air travel



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A new wing made from hundreds of small components designed by NASA and MIT promises a paradigm shift in efficiency compared to older designs.

In the near future, the aircraft may look substantially different from what we are used to today, particularly when it comes to the shape of its wings. Such a new design was revealed by MIT – in conjunction with NASA – that would allow a wing to change shape during flight, which could make fabrication much easier and much more efficient.

The new design, published for Smart materials and structures, eliminates separate moving surfaces such as ailerons to control the roll and the pitch of the airplane. Instead, the wing is assembled from hundreds of identical small parts that make it possible to deform the entire wing, or just part of it, incorporating a mixture of rigid and flexible components in its structure.

These small components are screwed together to form a light mesh that is then covered with a thin layer of polymeric material. The resulting wing is significantly lighter than conventional designs, making it much more energy efficient than the more modern wing made of composite materials.

While the standard wing design tries to incorporate the different phases of flight – such as takeoff, cruise and landing – the rigid structure results in a compromise that is not very efficient. Thus, a constantly deformable wing would be a significant boost for air travel.

The researchers also took the new design a step further by designing a system that automatically responds to changes in their downforce conditions, changing their shape without the need for additional motors or cables.

Researcher examining the lattice structure of the new wing design.

Image: Kenny Cheung / NASA Ames Research Center

Mounted by swarms of robots

"We can gain efficiency by combining shape with loads at different angles of attack," said Nicholas Cramer, lead author of the article. "We can produce exactly the same behavior that you would do actively, but we did it passively."

Unlike the prototype that was built by hand, the actual wing could be easily assembled by a swarm of small, simple self-assembling robots. Using a water jet cutter and a 3D printer, each part can be produced in just 17 seconds, making it ideal for mass production.

The resulting net produced by the method had a density of 5.6 kg per cubic meter, compared to the rubber having a density of 1,500 kg per cubic meter. In addition, the fact of being made of tiny subunits means that the wing can be made in any shape, as desired.

The concept is not limited only to wing design, the researchers said, as it can also be used for wind turbine blades, where the ability to mount on site can avoid the problem of carrying ever larger blades. It could even be used to build space structures, as well as bridges and other high-performance structures.

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