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The Next Generation of Aviation: NASA’s Shape Changing Wing

NASA-planeFor those of you still waiting for the Solar Impulse 2 to complete its journey around the world (without any fuel whatsoever!), here’s some aerospace news to hold you over.

NASA has been busy not only outside Earth’s atmosphere, but inside it as well. Working together with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and a company called FlexSys Inc. have successfully completed initial flight tests of a new morphing wing technology for aircrafts. This has the potential to save millions of dollars annually in fuel costs, reduce airframe weight and decrease aircraft noise during takeoffs and landings.

The test team at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, has been busy going on 22 research flights during the past six months! According to NASA’s official website they’ve been testing new experimental flight control surfaces that offer significant improvements over conventional flaps used on existing aircraft. They’re calling it the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge or ACTE for short.

ACTE technology, which can be retrofitted to existing airplane wings or integrated into entirely new airframes, offers two distinct improvements to the existing wings. First, it enables engineers to reduce wing structural weight and it aerodynamically tailors the wings to promote improved fuel economy and efficiency. It can also reduce environmental impacts and (and probably most importantly) reduce takeoff and landing noise.

The flexible ACTE flaps are designed to morph throughout the entire range of motion during your typical flight. Aircraft were flown with these experimental control surfaces at flap angles ranging from -2 degrees up to 30 degrees, and each time the wings passed with flying colors.

“We are thrilled to have accomplished all of our flight test goals without encountering any significant technical issues,” says AFRL Program Manager Pete Flick, from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “These flights cap 17 years of technology maturation…and the technology is now ready to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency for the Air Force and the commercial aviation industry.”

This project is also a huge step for NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project, which is designed to reduce aviation’s significant carbon footprint on the environment. Fay Collier, the ERA project manager, says that “(t)he completion of this flight test campaign at Armstrong is a big step for NASA’s ERA Project.”

Since all the primary and secondary objectives were completed in these flight tests (and were completed on time and within budget!), those results will be included in the design trade studies performed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for the design of future large-transport aircraft. We may be seeing futuristic airplanes like the Progress Eagle sooner than we think!

photo credit: NASA.gov

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