Aircraft

Little airplane turns by throwing its weight around

Sampath Reddy Vengate with his mass actuation-steered UAV
Sampath Reddy Vengate with his mass actuation-steered UAV
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Sampath Reddy Vengate with his mass actuation-steered UAV
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Sampath Reddy Vengate with his mass actuation-steered UAV
Vengate designed and built his fixed-wing UAV from scratch
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Vengate designed and built his fixed-wing UAV from scratch
Vengate's system (right) as compared to that of a regular UAV
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Vengate's system (right) as compared to that of a regular UAV

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
Vengate designed and built his fixed-wing UAV from scratch

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.

Source: University of Texas at Arlington

7 comments
DavidGanzer
I think the first airplane to be controlled by shifting weight was flown in the late 1800's by Otto Lilienthal.....
Komakai.Okane
I understand that this article is in reference to modifying a standard Hershey Bar style wing, 3 axis control type aircraft. However, hang glider wings do not have active control surfaces (except variable glide VG), but rely on the pilot to shift their weight to induce a turn.
MD
Weight shift... proven practical in small craft for the last 100+ years. (dynamic/aerodynamic stability however??) NB. weight distribution management is used by all large aircraft for trim / stability "management".
mhpr262
As has been mentioned - this concept is nothing new and has been used since the beginning of flight. Also, as an RC pilot of many years experience I can tell you that this system would be nowhere near quick or effective enough for anything except the slowest, most sedate soaring type of flight in very calm conditions. Plus, you need considerable additional weight and added mechanical complexity to control the plane. Many years ago a powerful turbulence grabbed my glider and turned it 90° vertical while attempting to land - with the left wingtip just a foot from the ground. No amount of weight shifting would have saved my plane in such a situation - it would have been utterly useless in a "vertical" wing.
GlassHalfEmpty
Really?... The kid spent time studying this to prove a long-known fact? Can I get some fame for proving water is wet?
Don Duncan
The Wright brothers used weight shifting even before and after their first flight. Given a fixed wing, problems of drag & control are built in. But with a free wing, drag is greatly reduced. The free wing, a hybrid of the "control wing", also allows for easier steerage. This fundamental change has many advantages, and a few disadvantages. Overall many lives could have been saved if the Wright brothers had used it because the entire history of aviation design would have been based on a different platform.
Daedelus
Have you people no awareness of the sports of Hang Gliding and Paragliding? We've been flying by weight shift and solar power for 45 years.