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NASA and MIT develop a plane that changes shape in the air

MIT scientists have developed with NASA’s help a flying wing whose light and robust structure can be deformed to improve flight performance.

Surprisingly, aeronautics research is sometimes inspired by the past. Thus, until the beginning of the First World War, aircraft did not have fins as roll control to turn. The flight control cables simply twisted the wings to tilt the aircraft left or right and turn. The structures, supple and at the same time robust, consisted of wood and canvas. These wings without fins used the technique known as “warping.” It is also with this type of orders that BlĂ©riot managed to cross the Channel, in 1909, on his Bleriot XI.

Today, researchers at MIT and NASA have jointly developed an aircraft wing that exploits this same torsion system to change the trajectory of the aircraft and especially optimize flight performance. More fins and more shutters change the wing profile at low speed and avoid stall near the ground. Better still, the fuselage disappears in favor of a flying wing profile. Often operated by military aircraft, such as the Northrop B-2 Spirit bomber, this type of aircraft form combines the assets. The flying wing has the best performance associated with a weak radar signature. Its only major fault is its relative instability during certain phases of the flight. This concern would be solved precisely with the innovation developed by the researchers.

A prototype of five meters long

With their concept, in all phases of flight, the wing would be more effective by adjusting its shape according to angles of attack. In any case, this was demonstrated by the wind tunnel tests at the NASA Research Center in Langley, Virginia. The results were even beyond the expectations of the researchers.

The structure of the wing is made of trellis to ensure deformation without fear of stresses that can degrade the wing. It is a very thin polymer material that covers the wing to stiffen it. With this material, the surface would look like rubber . The set would be much lighter, with a ratio of 5.6 kg per cubic meter, when the rubber reaches a ratio of 1.500 kg per cubic meter. Being lighter, the wing would be much more efficient and would spend much less energy than the most efficient materials available today.

Where modern technology improves the old warping process is that these deformations can automatically adjust the profile of the wing according to angles of attack and constraints. The researchers are not at their first attempt. A few years ago, they had already designed a one-meter long wing based on this same principle. Today, the wing in question this time measures five meters and can be tested on a powerful wind tunnel. Researchers believe that instead of designing this wing by hand, it could be made by small robots autonomously. It must be said that the assembly of the structure from small triangles is rather repetitive. This is the new project that this team of researchers wants to undertake.

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