NASA tests revolutionary shape changing aircraft flap for the first time

November 9, 2014
For taxi testing on Oct. 31, 2014 at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, in California, the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) flap was extended to 20 degrees deflection. Flight results will validate whether the seamless design with its advanced lightweight materials can reduce wing structural weight, improve fuel economy and efficiency, and reduce environmental impacts. Credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich

( —NASA's green aviation project is one step closer to developing technology that could make future airliners quieter and more fuel-efficient with the successful flight test of a wing surface that can change shape in flight.

This past summer researchers replaced an airplane's conventional aluminum flaps with advanced, shape-changing assemblies that form seamless bendable and twistable surfaces. Flight testing will determine whether flexible trailing-edge wing flaps are a viable approach to improve aerodynamic efficiency and reduce noise generated during takeoffs and landings.

The Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) project is a joint effort between NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), using flaps designed and built by FlexSys, Inc., of Ann Arbor, Michigan. With AFRL funding through the Air Force's Small Business Innovative Research program, FlexSys developed a variable geometry airfoil system called FlexFoil that can be retrofitted to existing or integrated into brand new airframes.

FlexFoil's inventor, FlexSys founder and Chief Executive Officer Sridhar Kota hopes testing with the modified Gulfstream III will confirm the design's worthiness and open doors to future applications and commercialization. ACTE is being flown at NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.

"This flight test is one of the NASA Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) Project's eight large-scale integrated technology demonstrations to show design improvements in drag, weight, noise, emission and fuel reductions," said Fay Collier, ERA project manager at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

This modified Gulfstream III is the test bed aircraft for the ACTE flexible-flap research project. Credit: NASA

During the initial ACTE flight, the experimental control surfaces were locked at a specified setting. Different flap settings will be employed on subsequent flights to collect a variety of data demonstrating the capability of the flexible wings to withstand a real flight environment. The flaps have the potential to be retrofitted to existing airplane wings or integrated into new airframes.

"We have progressed from an innovative idea and matured the concept through multiple designs and wind tunnel tests, to a final demonstration that should prove to the aerospace industry that this technology is ready to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency," said AFRL Program Manager Pete Flick, from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

ACTE technology is expected to have far-reaching effects on future aviation. Advanced lightweight materials will reduce wing structural weight and give engineers the ability to aerodynamically tailor the wings to promote improved fuel economy and more efficient operations, while reducing environmental impacts.

"The first flight went as planned—we validated many key elements of the experimental trailing edges," said Thomas Rigney, ACTE Project Manager at Armstrong. "We expect this technology to make future aircraft lighter, more efficient, and quieter. It also has the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually in fuel costs."

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5 / 5 (3) Nov 09, 2014
This is awesome.
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 09, 2014
Glad to see good things going on at Eddies again. When I was there in the 1960's we had the XB-70s, the X-15s', M2-F2, HL-10, NF-104s with rocket engines, XC-142, XV-5A, prototype F-111s and the P.1127 predecessor to the Harrier, Test Pilot School, Rocket Site, U-2s, all three variants of Blackbird, and some interesting others. Our C-130s snatched spy satellite film capsules re-entering the atmosphere, and picked up Air Commandos tied to clotheslines or balloons.

We also lost too many pilots.
3 / 5 (2) Nov 09, 2014
I wonder how well does it flex under the stress of a lightning bolt?
5 / 5 (3) Nov 09, 2014
Everything old is new again, wing warping was a Wright brothers invention quickly replaced by ailerons. Although I expect NASA's system is considerably more sophisticated.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 10, 2014
There are a number of other ideas that make sense too. The problem is paying for them. If a technology doesn't save more than it costs, it ends up shelved, and usually revisited if the economic model changes. Fuel was so cheap for so long that it's only fairly recently it's been justified to do anything expensive.
3 / 5 (2) Nov 10, 2014
Actually, I think this is how Wilbur and Orville controlled the original "Wright Flier."

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