Saturday November 8, 2003NASA researchers are working towards the goal of a plane that can bend its wings to achieve superior flight control in the way that as a bird does. These morphing aircraft of the future will integrate embedded "smart" materials and actuators that act like muscles in a birds wing, responding automatically to varying flight conditions and enabling new benchmarks to be set in aerodynamic efficiency and control.
A special research jet known as the Active Aeroelastic Wing (AAW) F/A-18 is currently exploring the aerodynamic benefits offered by this technology in its early phases.
Based at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center on Edwards Air Force Base in California, the AAW has wings that deflect when special leading and trailing edge control surfaces are activated.
The result is an aircraft that provides roll, or bank, comparable to a standard stiff-wing F/A-18 with less need for coordinated tail surface inputs in completing a turning manoeuvre.Aviation pioneers the Wright brothers also understood this principle. They incorporated "wing-warping" into the very first airplane in 1903 to enable it to bank for turns.
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In order to generate automatic responses from the aircraft when flight conditions change, sensors will measure the pressure over the entire surface of the wing and direct actuators accordingly to maximise aerodynamic efficiency.
For passengers these seamless "smart" wings may mean smoother flights and potential military applications are seen in using the surfaces to improve anti-radar stealth qualities.
The quest for a morphing aircraft that changes its shape in flight to meet requirements is ongoing at several NASA aeronautical centers.