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NASA and MIT Want Planes That Fly More Like Birds



Photo: NASA

Every single airplane has ever flown in used mechanical bits of metal and composites on hinges to turn this way and that, hither and yon. The real dream is to fly through the skies like a goddamn bird, bending and twisting your wings instead, as God intended. Except for very few planes ̵

1; the original Wright Flyer included – it's way too difficult, way too expensive, way too impossible. Unless NASA and MIT have their way.

The problem with the way most plans change direction right now is that it's not really, well, good. I mean, it's good in that it technically works, your plane does in fact change direction, but it's not great in terms of efficiency. The basis of the wing is rigid, and, while there are changes made with flaps and elevators and ailerons, the wing is never actually optimized for flight conditions – it's just found a happy compromise. It's the tech we've had for ages, and it's made the most sense.

A rendering showing the potential redesign of aircraft with the new tech, assembled by the orange robots
Image: NASA

But NASA and MIT have proposed something new that is actually old in concept, that of flexible wings. Wings where the whole surface can contort and deform according to the needs of travel. Here's exactly what MIT has envisioned:

The new assembly system makes it possible to form the whole wing, or parts of it, by incorporating a mix of stiff and flexible components into 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 of the structure, including thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts, it is composed mostly of empty space, the form a mechanical "metamaterial" that combines the structural stiffness of a rubber-like polymer and the extreme lightness and low density of an airgel.

Photo: NASA

And the best part is, the engineers at NASA and MIT have found a way to do this automatically. The new wing has been designed with a self-adjusting, passive wing restructuring system that requires no additional motors or human input to make it work.
If this sounds familiar, well — it is. Do you want to be constantly busy with changing air conditions? That's basically what birds do. It was the same concept that the first ever airplanes used, except it was easier back then because of planes were built out of nothing but wood and some fabric. It's a lot harder when your whole plane is made out of rigid aluminum and steel, as planes started to become the first decades after they initially started flying. And while the idea of ​​a metal plane is a lot better than one made of wood for a lot of reasons, it didn't help engineers who never gave up on the idea of ​​a twisting wing.

NASA's still been interested in having movable wings, though, because those static metal tubes are still the peak of flight optimization. Its wing-warping program dates back to at least 1996. They've been tested as "a high-tech adaptation of the Wright Brothers rudimentary wing warping" approach to aircraft flight control — the Active Aeroelastic Wing. The initial study was designed to research aircraft roll control by twisting the wing of an F / A-18A

The Active Aeroelastic Wing.
Photo: NASA

The results were promising. A more flexible wing reduced the roll rates and kept the plane steadier than it had been with a sturdier wing. The technology, though, still depended on a lot of ailerons, or the hangings at the very end of the airplane wing that can be adjusted up or down to provide control.

This new partnership with MIT represents the continuation of that research: how to design without all those complicated mechanical bits. Basically, instead of retroactively outfitting an existing plane with new wings, how could NASA develop the entire plane around the concept of flexible wings? The answer to that question is the reading you read about here.

The research has potential to not only optimize the flying process, but to optimize the production process as well. According to MIT's research, the new tech encourages designing small subunits rather than giant wings, and it requires far less material than the current design.

FLYING LIKE A REAL, GODDAMN BIRD.

But let's talk about the real benefit for one second.
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