Penn State: Morphing Airplane Wings Fly Like a Bird's

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a...fish? That's right. In yet another triumph of biomimicry, engineers at Penn State University have developed a concept for airplane wings that morph in flight, changing shape like a bird's do and covered with a segmented outer skin like the scales of a fish. The design could help planes glide more efficiently through the air during a broader range of speeds because changing the shape of the wings to reduce drag and power, which varies with flight speed, could optimize fuel consumption. The morphing wings can change both wing area and cross section shape, since flying efficiently at different speeds requires different wing shapes—small wings for fast speeds and long, narrow wings for slow speeds. The essential features are an efficient, compliant cellular truss structure that acts like a skeleton; highly distributed tendon actuation, i.e., that which gives the wing shape; and a segmented skin, composed of overlapping plates, like the scales of a fish, which allow the outermost layer of the wing to accommodate the radically changing shapes of the wing underneath.

So far, the design team, which is supported by grants from NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has built a tabletop model of the compliant cellular truss structure and a computer graphic model of the wing structure. ::Penn State Live [MO]

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