NASA and MIT just unveiled a new “morphing” aircraft wing that could revolutionize aviation. The flexible wing designed by NASA’s MADCAT team could be used to create super-efficient planes that use much less fuel. An Airbus aviation expert uninvolved with the research said the approach pioneered by MADCAT “is a philosophical revolution, opening the gate to disruptive innovation.”

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Wing shape greatly impacts how efficiently an aircraft can operate, and according to NASA, rigid wings aren’t always the most efficient. They describe the search for a better wing as the quest for the holy grail. MADCAT, comprised of researchers and students from MIT; University of California, Davis; University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Santa Cruz; Cornell University; and NASA may have found that long-awaited green wing.

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According to MIT, the wing is made of “a system of tiny, lightweight subunits” that robots could assemble. The subunits are covered by overlapping parts reminiscent of scales or feathers. The wing components are made from advanced carbon fiber composite materials. Computers and motors can help change the shape of the wing for better efficiency even while an aircraft is flying. The new wings could also be manufactured using much simpler and more streamlined processes.

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NASA is dedicated to green aviation “by dramatically reducing its environmental impact; improving efficiency, while maintaining safety in more crowded skies; and paving the way for revolutionary aircraft shapes and propulsion,” according to a statement on the morphing wings.

The MADCAT team is still working on the design of the groundbreaking wing, but they’ve already experimented with the concept at a Modesto, California test airfield. The journal Soft Robotics published the innovative work earlier this year.

+ MIT News

+ NASA

Images via Kenneth Cheung/NASA