Little airplane turns by throwing its weight around

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Sampath Reddy Vengate with his mass actuation-steered UAV(Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

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As any good aeronautical engineer will tell you, the more streamlined an airplane is, the less fuel it uses. That's why we've previously seen attempts at doing away with separate ailerons (wing flaps), and instead going with wings that simply change shape while in flight. Well, a recent Aerospace Engineering grad from the University of Texas at Arlington has taken another approach. Sampath Reddy Vengate created a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that turns by shifting weights within its wings.

Vengate first came up with the idea as an undergrad, when he took part in a competition that required a UAV to carry an off-center weighted payload and drop it on a target. While delivering the payload wasn't much of a problem, Sampath had trouble getting the aircraft to adapt to the weight imbalance after it was dropped.

He ultimately didn't win the contest, but he did realize how a shifting mass could be used to steer an aircraft. Concorde pilots have actually known this for decades – at supersonic speeds, the planes' elevators (tail flaps) were insufficient on their own, so crews would pump fuel back and forth within the fuselage to help when altering course.

Vengate designed and built his fixed-wing UAV from scratch. He included ailerons, elevators and a rudder just in case, although he ultimately was able to turn the aircraft using nothing but its "mass actuation" system. This consists simply of weights concealed inside of the wings, that can move from side to side on command, changing the plane's center of gravity as they do so.

Sampath was working as part of a team supervised by associate professor Atilla Dogan. According to research conducted by that team, this was the first time that an aircraft had been successfully flown using such technology.

"I was excited that my idea worked, and it's even better that no one else has ever successfully applied this idea to an aircraft," said Vengate.

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