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Airplane Wing Assembles Like a Jigsaw Puzzle and Can Morph Into Any Shape

A new airplane wing design assembles like a jigsaw puzzle and changes shape in response to stress.
A new airplane wing design assembles like a jigsaw puzzle and changes shape in response to stress. (Image credit: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center)

A new type of airplane wing assembled like a jigsaw puzzle could make for lighter, more efficient aircraft.

NASA and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers tested the wing design in a NASA wind tunnel, where the technology performed better than expected, Benjamin Jenett, one of the wing's developers and a graduate student at MIT, said in a statement. The new wing is light and flexible, able to adjust its shape midflight depending on the needs of the pilot.

"You can make any geometry you want," Jenett said. [Supersonic! The 11 Fastest Military Planes]

Conventional airplane wings are made of metal and composite materials, so they're fairly heavy. They also involve moving parts, like the flaps and ailerons you might watch tilting up and down if you get an overwing seat on a cross-country flight.

The new wing is made of thousands of little triangular struts, each made of matchstick-sized polymer pieces. The team manufactured the struts from a polyethylene resin injected into a mold. The lattice of struts was then assembled by hand into a 16.4-foot-long (5 meters) wing, which is about as big as a wing on a single-seater airplane.

The morphing wing is made of thousands of tiny triangular struts that have different levels of stiffness. By strategically placing these stiff and flexible struts, researchers made a wing that changes shape in response to stress. (Image credit: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center)

The lattice-like wing is covered with a thin sheet of polymer and has a density of just 3.8 lbs. per cubic foot (5.6 kilograms per cubic meter).

But lightness isn't the only advantage of the new wing design. It's also flexible. By strategically placing stiff and flexible components in the lattice pattern, the researchers can build a wing that changes shape in response to the stresses around it. Instead of having to lift a flap or move an aileron, a pilot could simply maneuver the plane, and the wing would change shape automatically.

"We're able to gain efficiency by matching the shape to the loads at different angles of attack," study leader Nicholas Cramer, a research computer scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, said in the statement. "We're able to produce the exact same behavior you would do actively, but we did it passively."

The research was published April 1 in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie interned as a science writer at Stanford University Medical School, and also interned at ScienceNow magazine and The Santa Cruz Sentinel. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what her latest project is, you can follow Stephanie on Google+.