Lead story graphic credit: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center; Image source: (Whiteman, 2019).
By: David M. Edwards
Yesterday, Hilary Whiteman, of Cable News Network (C.N.N.), reported that a team led by the United States (U.S.) National Aeronautics and Space Administration (N.A.S.A.) has developed a new technology to revolutionize the flying wing by creating a “flexible wing that morphs as it flies” (Whiteman 2019).
“Measuring 14 feet or four meters wide, the new wing is constructed from thousands of units that fit together and function in a similar way to a bird’s wing, says one of the report’s authors, NASA research engineer, Nick Cramer” (Whiteman, 2019).
“Something like a condor will lock its joints in while it’s cruising, and then it (adjusts) its wing to a more optimal shape for its cruising, and then when it wants to do a more aggressive maneuver it’ll unlock its shoulder. That’s a similar response to what we’re doing here,” he said in a phone interview, Whitman (2019) reports.
“The team, including experts from NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, say their design could lead to significant efficiencies in the future manufacture and maintenance of planes,” according to Whiteman (2019).
The modular structure of the design allows for dynamic morphing of the wing.
For testing purposes, this initial wing was hand-assembled, but future versions could be constructed by miniature robots (Whiteman, 2019). Credit: Kenny Cheung, NASA Ames Research Center (Photograph source: Whiteman (2019)).
“The cost scaling and the amount of infrastructure that the business needs to invest in order to implement these new designs is pretty extraordinary,” Kenneth Cheung, a research scientist from the NASA Ames Research Center, said in a phone interview, according to Whiteman (2019). Hilary Whiteman goes onto report this new technology was first published in the journal “Smart Materials and Structures” and can be viewed by clicking here.
The flying wing is not new. In fact the U.S. Air Force flew the first flying wing, called the YB–49 bomber, seventy years ago in 1949 (A.D.), according to Mizokami (2018).
Credit: Courtesy of NASA; Image source:(Whiteman, 2019).
“The wing’s assembly is seen under construction, assembled from hundreds of identical subunits” (Whiteman, 2019).
Credit: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center; Image source:(Whiteman, 2019).
“The system is also designed to be programmable, so the wing shape will automatically morph according to the change in aerodynamic loading conditions, during different stages of flight. Credit: Eli Gershenfeld, NASA Ames Research Center” (Whiteman, 2019).
“A crucial issue is integrating the material into current systems, which would likely require a total upheaval of the traditional approach to designing planes. And that demands time, research and, of course, money” (Whiteman, 2019).
The flying wing has also been extended to the Blended Wing Body (B.W.B.) concept created and tested in scaled sized model by McDonnell Douglas, now owned by The Boeing Company, according to Leeham (2018).
Photo Source: NASA Image; Source: Leeham (2018).
“But don’t expect to see a BWB either as a freighter or as a passenger airplane any time soon,” says Boeing’s VP of Product Development and Future Airplane Development, Mike Sinnett (Leeham, 2018). Leeham news goes on to mention that Mr. Sinnett states there is a required twenty percent improvement over today’s airline technology to justify a new aircraft (Leeham, 2018). Current versions of new aircraft like the Boeing 737–MAX and Boeing 787 have various versions that differ in the length of the aircraft, thus providing a model extension (Leeham, 2018). Having a flying wing provides a extreme challenge in the current business model of lengthening airline tubes, which is not realistically feasible with the flying wing or B.W.B. designs.
The Boeing B–2 Spirit Bomber is a flying wing. Translating the new morphing flat wing design into stealth bomber aircraft will be much more easier, realistic, and feasible than moving the technology into passenger aircraft. The mechanical mechanisms of the wing morphing will take space. Where are the fuel tanks, passengers, freight, and baggage going to go?
The idea of the realistically converting the historical tube wing airliner into a flying wing or B.W.B. design has been studied at the passenger perception level. The results indicated that it would be a “radical” departure from both the safe and comfort zones of most boarding passengers. The psychological stigma would thus have to be convincingly and decisively overcome to proceed with a viable development pathway in the airline industry.
In order to make this new technology effective, realistic, practical, and economically feasible, all these requirements would need to be robustly and decisively defined upon, prior to starting the clean sheet (blank sheet of paper) design of the “Proof Of Principle” prototype aircraft, based and molded on this new technology.
Leeham. (2018, April 3). Don’t Look For Commerical BWB Airplane Any Time Soon, Says Boeing’s Future Airplanes Head. LeehamNews.com
Mizokami, K. (2018, May 22). The U.S. Air Force’s First Flying Wing Jet Flew Way Back In 1949. PopularMechanics.com
Whiteman, H. (2019, April 3). New Plane Wing Moves Like A Bird’s And Could Radically Change Aircraft Design. CNN.