A team of engineers has built and tested a radically new kind of airplane wing, assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces. The wing can change shape to control the plane’s flight, and could provide a significant boost in aircraft production, flight, and maintenance efficiency, the researchers say.
The new approach to wing construction could afford greater flexibility in the design and manufacturing of future aircraft. The new wing design was tested in a NASA wind tunnel and is described in a paper in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.
Instead of requiring separate movable surfaces such as ailerons to control the roll and pitch of the plane, as conventional wings do, the new assembly system makes it possible to deform the whole wing, or parts of it, by incorporating a mix of stiff and flexible components in its structure.
The tiny subassemblies, which are bolted together to form an open, lightweight lattice framework, are then covered with a thin layer of similar polymer material as the framework. The result is a wing that is much lighter, and thus much more energy efficient, than those with conventional designs, whether made from metal or composites, the researchers say. Because the structure, comprising thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts, is composed mostly of empty space, it forms a mechanical “metamaterial” that combines the structural stiffness of a rubber-like polymer and the extreme lightness and