It’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s close. NASA, working
together with the Air Force Research Laboratory, announced yesterday
that they’ve successfully flown a plane with a new, flexible wing–the
kind that could change how all future fixed-wing aircraft fly.
Added to the rear edge of a Gulfstream III
jet’s wings, the technology could cut airplane fuel consumption by up
to 12 percent. “Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge” is its name, and it’s
made out of a bendy material whose identity has not been revealed by its
The shape-changing wings are an alternative to flaps, whose hard
edges generate drag and noise. That drag is, at times, sort of the
point. Looking out a wing seat on a jetliner as it lands, it’s possible
to see the flaps angling down to increase the size of the wing and slow
the speed of the plane as it lands. The flexible edge still allows this,
bending and contorting in drag-increasing ways when needed, but it does
it all under a smooth, continuous surface. Servos and actuators inside
the flexible shell of the aircraft pull strings that then contort the
wings’ surface, bending and warping to produce an effect similar to
mechanical flaps. The smooth wings promise to be more aerodynamic in
flight, which helps to save on fuel.
For the tests, NASA flew the plane 22 times, with flaps fixed in
position for each flight. Those angels ranged from 1 degree downward to
30 degrees upward. In future tests, which NASA has at least seven more planned, the wings will likely change angles during the flight.