Bendable, morphing wings covered with overlapping pieces resembling scales or feathers could be used to build more agile, fuel-efficient aircraft, a new study finds.
The new wing architecture consists of a system of tiny, strong, lightweight modules. The shape of the wing can be changed uniformly along its length using two small motors, which apply a twisting pressure to each wingtip. These wings are covered in “skins” of overlapping strips of flexible material resembling fish scales or bird feathers. These strips move across each other as the wings morph, providing a smooth outer surface, the researchers explained. Wind-tunnel tests of these wings showed that they at least matched the aerodynamic properties of conventional wings, at about one-tenth the weight.
Whereas the construction of light composite wings for aircraft currently requires large, specialized equipment for layering and hardening the material, the new modular structures the scientists developed could be manufactured quickly in mass quantities and then assembled by teams of small robots.