NASA successfully tests morphing wing for next-gen aircraft

Shape-changing FlexFoils made from composite materials offer fuel and weight savings plus noise reduction.

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NASA researchers, working in concert with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL, Dayton, OH, US) and FlexSys Inc.(Ann Arbor, MI, US), successfully completed initial flight tests of a new morphing wing technology that has the potential to save millions of dollars in annual fuel costs, reduce airframe weight and decrease noise during takeoffs and landings.

The test team at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center (Edwards, CA, US), flew 22 research flights during the past six months with experimental Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) flight control surfaces — i.e., FlexFoil seamless control surfaces — that offer significant improvements vs. conventional hinged flaps.

AFRL began work with FlexSys in 1998 through the Small Business Innovative Research (SIBR) program, developing and wind tunnel testing several wing leading and trailing edge designs for various aircraft configurations through 2006. In 2009, AFRL and NASA's Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project agreed to equip a Gulfstream III jet with ACTE flaps designed and built by FlexSys, incorporating its proprietary technology. Both of the G-III's conventional 5.8m long aluminum flaps were  replaced with advanced, shape-changing FlexFoils made from composite materials.

ACTE technology, which can be retrofitted to existing airplane wings or integrated into entirely new airframes, enables engineers to reduce wing structural weight and to aerodynamically tailor the wings for improved aerodynamic efficiency and fuel economy while reducing environmental and noise impacts. Fuel savings from 3% to 5% are projected for retrofit applications and 8% to 12% for clean sheet aircraft designs. Noise reduction during take-off and landing can reportedly reach up to 40%.

"The completion of this flight test campaign at Armstrong is a big step for NASA's Environmentally Responsible Aviation Project," said ERA project manager Fay Collier. Flight testing was key to proving the concept's airworthiness. The test aircraft was flown with its experimental control surfaces at flap angles ranging from -2 degrees up to 30 degrees. Although the flexible ACTE flaps were designed to morph throughout the entire range of motion, each test was conducted at a single fixed setting in order to collect incremental data with a minimum of risk.

"We are thrilled to have accomplished all of our flight test goals without encountering any significant technical issues," said AFRL Program Manager Pete Flick. "These flights cap 17 years of technology maturatio . . . and the technology now is ready to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency for the Air Force and the commercial aviation industry."

The results of these flight tests will be included in design trade studies performed at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for designing future large transport aircraft. For more information on NASA's research in next generation aircraft, visit: