MIT and NASA engineers share new airplane wing concept

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Northrop Grumman flying wing aircraft concept
Northrop Grumman flying wing aircraft concept( Credits - Wikimedia Commons)

Engineers of MIT and NASA have shared a design of an airplane wing of a new kind, which is made of hundreds of tiny identical pieces. It is capable of changing the shape so that it can control the flight. This wing design has been tested and it has been described in the journal Smart Materials and Structures, co-authored by Nicholas Cramer (engineer at NASA Ames in California), MIT alumnus Kenneth Cheung and Benjamin Jenett, a student in MIT Centre for Bits and Atoms with eight others. The creators claim that the design may boost aircraft production, flight, and maintenance efficiency. 

Tested in NASA wing tunnel, the typical wing designs possess moveable surfaces to control the pitch and the roll of the plane. To give greater control over movement the new wing can move the sections and even the entire wing. The wing comprises of stiff and flexible components with individual pieces made up of a polymer such that on being bolted together, the pieces from framework of an open lattice. It is energy efficient as it is much lighter than typical aircraft wings. The research team describes the plane to be made up of ‘thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts’ giving an empty framework.

A meta-material, stiff like a polymer but extremely light as an aerogel, is formed from the combined pieces. This design could change its shape in order to be in optimal design in accordance to the flight depending on different aerodynamic conditions. The self-moving wing is only achieved through placement of different amounts of flexibility or stiffness possessing struts allowing the wing to be able to bend in several ways according to its current state.

Cramer, the paper’s lead author says, “We’re able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack.” While this prototype wing was hand assembled by students, however, in future it could easily be built by a swarm of small, simple autonomous assembly robots. Each piece is made using injection moulding and a complex 3D modelling and hence can easily be built by a pool of small autonomous assembly robots

Each piece looks like a hollow cube made of matchstick-size struts along the edges taking a mere 17 seconds to be created. “Now we have a manufacturing method,” he says. The wing design may do away from the familiar tapered hollow tube. “You can make any geometry you want. The fact that most aircraft are the same shape is because of expense,” said Cramer. 

 

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