NASA Demonstrates Radical New Lightweight Airplane Wing Made of Thousands of Tiny Identical Pieces

MIT, NASA, airplane wing
Wing assembly is seen under construction, assembled from hundreds of identical subunits. The wing was tested in a NASA wind tunnel. Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center

NASA and MIT scientists have developed a radical new type of airplane wing, which is made up of thousands of tiny identical subunits.

After successfully testing it in a NASA wind tunnel, the researchers say the wing—which is described in a paper published in the journal Smart Materials and Structures—has the potential to significantly improve the production of aircraft in the future by adding greater flexibility to the manufacturing process.

"The main goal is to digitize construction using discrete material blocks, known as voxels, which can be assembled into larger functional structures whose behavior can be programmed at a cellular level for high degrees of complexity at a low cost," Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student at MIT, told Newsweek. "In contrast to additive manufacturing [otherwise known as 3D printing,] this process is reversible—for repair and reconfiguration—and highly tailorable."

Normally, wings use movable parts such as ailerons to control the roll and pitch of the plane. The new design, however, can actually change shape by deforming itself—the result of being built with a mix of stiff and flexible components—so that the whole wing, or sections of it, can bend in specific ways.

The small identical subunits or voxels form a lattice structure that is then covered in a thin polymer material. The resulting wing is thus mostly composed of empty space, while still being stiff and low density. The lattice, for example, has the same stiffness as rubber but only around one-thousandth of the density.

The fact the wing is deformable means it can adapt to different situations—whether it's landing, takeoff or cruising. According to the researchers, this leads to a design that is much lighter and, therefore, more energy efficient, than conventional wings.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack," Nicholas Cramer, lead author of the paper from NASA Ames in California, said in a statement. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively."

The current version of the design measures around 16 feet in length and was built by hand. However, the researchers say that the wing could easily be assembled by a team of autonomous robots, with each part taking just 17 seconds to produce via injection molding.

"Now we have a manufacturing method," Jenett said in the statement. "While there's an upfront investment in tooling, once that's done, the parts are cheap. We have boxes and boxes of them, all the same."

The fact that the new design is built from tiny subunits means that the variety of potential shapes for a finished wing could be greatly expanded.

"You can make any geometry you want," Jenett said. "The fact that most aircraft are the same shape is because of expense. It's not always the most efficient shape."

This could have significant implications for the transport industry, according to the researchers. For example, it could boost the development of aircraft with integrated body and wing structures—which are more efficient.

"We hope that our approach improves performance, and thus saves resources, for a variety of future transport modes," Jenett said. "New designs could be rapidly built and tested using a modular construction system. It is certainly understandable that passenger aircraft are fairly engrained in their design and execution, but new modes of transport could benefit from the low overhead of our approach."

The researchers also note that the construction apporach used to build the wing could also be applied to other high-performance structures, such as wind-turbine blades.

"The research shows promise for reducing cost and increasing the performance for large, lightweight, stiff structures," Daniel Campbell, a researcher at Aurora Flight Sciences who was not involved in this research, said in a statement. "Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Benjamin Jenett.