New morphing aeroplane wing is covered by scale-like skin

4 Nov 2016

Close-up of the new morphing aeroplane wing. Image: Kenneth Cheung/NASA

A whole new concept of aeroplane wing design has been developed by a team from MIT and NASA, which can morph during flight and is covered in a ‘skin’ that somewhat resembles fish scales.

The development of a morphing aeroplane wing is very much a sign of how far we have come, from the system of wires and pulleys used by the Wright brothers in Flyer 1 back in 1903.

But the latest wing technology, developed jointly by MIT and NASA, could have more in common with the very first wings of canvas and wood than with a modern aircraft.

Built like Lego by robots

Rather than being made from a rigid structure of aluminium alloy and carbon fibre, this new ‘morphing’ wing is one of the first breakthroughs in an age-old problem for wing design.

The new system is based on an array of minute subunits that could be assembled by a team of robots, covering it in a ‘skin’ that closely resembles scales, or even feathers.

Called ‘digital pieces’ by its creators, these units would allow the wing to be built in whatever shape desired, like a series of Lego blocks.

This process would make manufacturing significantly simpler and cheaper than current methods, which require specialised equipment for layering and hardening materials.

Also, by being able to morph its shape in mid-air, an aircraft wing could adapt to its environment to improve agility but also reduce the aircraft’s fuel consumption through improved aerodynamics.

Bending wings

The morphing wings twisting and moving independently of each other, eliminating the need for wing flaps and ailerons. Image: Kenneth Cheung/NASA

Given their nature, the morphing wings can be turned into something completely different just by disassembling and reassembling them.

Meanwhile, the ‘skin’ of the wing enhances its structure by being made from layered and overlapping strips of flexible material, which its creators compare to the scales of a fish.

For nearly as long as planes have been flying in the air, researchers have been trying to find a reliable way of deforming wings as a substitute for a system of many moving, but rigid components.

Previous attempts were almost completely unsuccessful, as they were reliant on deforming the wing through the use of mechanical control structures that were so heavy, they cancelled out any possible advantages.

New frontiers for flight

The experimental design – successfully tested in a NASA wind tunnel – “presents a general strategy for increasing the performance of highly compliant ‘soft’ robots and mechanisms,” said Kenneth Cheung who was involved with the research.

CTO of aerospace firm Moog Inc., Moog Gonzalo Rey, described the wing design as a “fundamentally new way to make things, and enable the conventionally impossible”, as well as a means of opening up a “whole new frontier for flight”.

In the short term, the research team believes the technology could be applied to smaller, robotic aircraft like long-range drones, capable of being used to deliver medicine to remote areas of developing nations.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic