Flight research center to test shape-changing wing idea

January 19, 2014 by Nancy Owano weblog

(Phys.org) —Conventional wing designs in the form of hinged flaps are in for a re-think. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has noted how hinged flight control surfaces came along shortly after wing-warping technology developed by the Wright Brothers, and still remain the usual method of construction for flight control surfaces. Something different is being proposed, however. At this year's American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) SciTech January event in Washington, new wing technology was introduced by an Ann Arbor, Michigan company. Wing "morphing" may emerge as a technology approach. The company behind the technology is FlexSys, which showcased their FlexFoil, a variable geometry airfoil system. The idea is to use seamless, flexible wings which can operate like flaps but without the extra baggage of inefficiency. The system is designed to optimize wing aerodynamics. FlexFoil is a deformable, seamless surface that changes shape for better performance throughout the flight. The company says it uses aerospace-grade materials and actuators.

The foils are just as stiff and strong as a conventional flap; they are optimized to resist deflection under significant aerodynamic loading. They can tolerate over 10,000 pounds of air loads.

FlexFoil has been in development since 2001; the inventor is mechanical engineer Dr. Sridhar Kota, who is also the founder of FlexSys. In starting the company, Dr, Kota, who is a University of Michigan professor of mechanical engineering, sought to develop and commercialize his patented design of a shape-morphing adaptive control surface.

A key principle pertinent to the work as stated on the company site: "Conventionally engineered mechanisms connected by various joints are designed to be strong and stiff. Nature prefers strength combined with compliance." Strong and flexible can beat strong and rigid in many instances. His bio-inspired research has led to a known as "distributed compliance. This term refers to "a form of structural load sharing by exploiting elasticity to design monolithic compliant structures or joint-less mechanisms."

According to the company, "Changing the shape of a modern aircraft's wing in flight has been an elusive goal. Unlike the earlier iterations, which suffered from complexities with the actuators and problems of heavyweight componentry, the FlexFoil technology employed a new approach, called distributed compliance."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The results are wings that can be reliable and cost-effective. How cost effective?. FlexFoil, which can be retrofitted into existing wings or work on new builds, reduces fuel consumption. When retrofitted, FlexFoil can reduce fuel consumption by a claimed three to five percent, and eight to 12 percent on a "clean sheet" build. These numbers were presented in a promotional video about FlexFoil.

Jet fuel savings may prove to be a significant reason for FlexFoil. "Given the United States' aviation community's $54 billion yearly fuel bill," said a company press release, "the savings could be viewed enthusiastically by industry insiders in both the manufacturing and operations spheres. Successful flight tests of the new FlexFoil technology are expected to gain the attention of designers and accountants." Also, with less strain in any one area, reduced wing loads may lead to lowered maintenance costs; other benefits include a significant reduction in noise while landing.

The company's variable geometry technology could have other applications, such as helicopter rotor blades, wind turbine blades, and boat rudders.

In July, FlexSys in partnership with the Air Force and NASA will be flight-testing a Gulfstream business jet with FlexFoil seamless control surfaces at the Dryden Flight Research Center.

Explore further: Intelligent control for performance: Reducing drag, saving fuel

More information: www.flxsys.com/pdf/flexsys.com-press-release011314.pdf

Related Stories

Researchers look to butterflies to improve flight

October 24, 2013

A better understanding of the aerodynamic properties of butterfly wings may lead to improved human-made flight, according to research at The University of Alabama recently funded by the National Science Foundation.

Designing a super-aerodynamic wing

October 28, 2013

(Phys.org) —Air travel may be fast and convenient, but exhaust from the millions of flights that take-off and land each year worldwide is having an impact on the health of the planet. Fortunately, a Ryerson researcher is ...

The secrets of owls' near noiseless wings

November 24, 2013

Many owl species have developed specialized plumage to effectively eliminate the aerodynamic noise from their wings – allowing them to hunt and capture their prey in silence.

Recommended for you

Interactive tool lifts veil on the cost of nuclear energy

August 24, 2015

Despite the ever-changing landscape of energy economics, subject to the influence of new technologies and geopolitics, a new tool promises to root discussions about the cost of nuclear energy in hard evidence rather than ...

Smart home heating and cooling

August 28, 2015

Smart temperature-control devices—such as thermostats that learn and adjust to pre-programmed temperatures—are poised to increase comfort and save energy in homes.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 19, 2014
If their technology is so great, why are they airbrushing in the "transition surface" in all of their video clips?
not rated yet Jan 20, 2014
When retrofitted, FlexFoil can reduce fuel consumption by a claimed three to five percent, and eight to 12 percent on a "clean sheet" build.

This may not seem like much, but is rather a lot for airline companies. An interesting approach.

The longevity of the foil (and performance under extreme temeprature/weather/UV conditions) is something that needs to be addressed (the temperature range stated in the press release does not seem adequate for me for airplanes. Air gets a lot colder than -9 degrees).
Another thing is: how maintenance friendly is it? Does the entire wing need replacement on a 'clean sheet' build when part of it becomes torn/crumpled/fragile?

But ever since that ancient Disney-kitsch-movie "Flight of the Navigator" have I thought that deformable surfaces would be awesome for plane/ship/submarine hulls.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.