NASA has announced the successful application of new technology in flight which allows aircraft to fold their wings to different angles while in the air.
The recent flight series, which took place at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California, was part of the Spanwise Adaptive Wing Project (SAW). This project aims to validate the use of a cutting-edge, lightweight material to be able to fold the outer portions of aircraft wings and their control surfaces to optimal angles in flight.
SAW, which is a joint effort between Armstrong, NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, or GRC, Langley Research Center in Virginia, Boeing Research & Technology in St. Louis and Seattle, and Area-I Inc. in Kennesaw, Georgia, may produce multiple in-flight benefits to aircraft in the future, both subsonic and supersonic.
Folding wings in flight is an innovation that had been studied using aircraft in the past, including the North American XB-70 Valkyrie in the 1960s. However, the ability to fold wings in flight has always been dependent on heavy and bulky conventional motors and hydraulic systems, which can be cumbersome to the aircraft.
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The SAW project intends to obtain a wide spectrum of aerodynamic benefits in flight by folding wings through the use of an innovative, lightweight material called shape memory alloy. This material is built into to an actuator on the aircraft, which plays a vital role for moving parts on the airplane, where it has the ability to fold the outer portion of an aircraft’s wings in flight without the strain of a heavy hydraulic system. Systems with this new technology may weigh up to 80 percent less than traditional systems.
The recent series of flight tests at Armstrong successfully demonstrated the material’s application and use, by folding the wings between zero and 70 degrees up and down in flight.
“We wanted to see: can we move wings in flight, can we control them to any position we want to get aerodynamic benefits out of them, and could we do it with this new technology,” said SAW Co-Principal Investigator Othmane Benafan. “Folding wings has been done in the past, but we wanted to prove the feasibility of doing this using shape memory alloy technology, which is compact, lightweight, and can be positioned in convenient places on the aircraft.”
On subsonic aircraft, such as commercial airliners, the potential aerodynamic benefit of folding the wings includes increased controllability, which may result in a reduced dependency on heavier parts of the aircraft, including the tail rudder. Continue reading more about this test flight.