Here’s an Idea: A Morphing Airplane Wing Built by Tiny Robots

Every aircraft wing and body has basically the same shape. "That means they're suboptimal," says MIT's Ben Jenett in our latest episode of Here's an Idea — a Tech Briefs interview series with leading aerospace researchers. From take-off to landing, an aircraft experiences a variety of conditions, and must frequently change angles to adjust to surroundings. What if a wing could adapt...on the fly...to turbulent winds or an oncoming airstream? Ben Jenett, a PhD student at MIT and a former space research fellow at NASA, is helping to develop a new kind of aircraft wing that's flexible and changes in-air. Subscribe or listen via your preferred podcast provider here. In addition to the various conditions encountered during flight, an aircraft changes its mass as it burns through fuel. Minor shifts in the wing's form can lead to large energy-efficiency gains, according to the MIT researcher. "If you can have an aircraft that can actively change its shape, then you can optimize its performance," said Jenett. By putting joints everywhere and mass-producing smaller elements, Jenett and his team built a structure that looks and acts like a single material, but in fact, is an octrahedra connected at all of its vertices. The Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerostructure Technologies, or MADCAT, wing is lightweight and made from carbon-fiber composites. With a mesh made of so many tiny elements, you can easily predict the components' behavior— and then tune that behavior. An individual modular block used for the MADCAT project. (Image Credit: NASA) Learn about the MADCAT aero-structure, and the inchworm robots that Jenett is using to do all the building for it. Episode Highlights: (1:08) Why is flexibility in aircraft so important? (2:08) How did the idea for MADCAT come about? (2:48) What does the wing look like? ("It's kind of like the wing of a bird...") (5:20) What activates the changes in the wing? (6:44) What are the drawbacks of traditional manufacturing methods? ("Our approach is based on small building blocks. You can think of them like Legos...") (8:30) How soon do you expect to see this kind of aircraft wing in the air? (9:30) Will this kind of building block manufacturing be used for more than aircraft? ("Absolutely…the real goal is to have assemblers that can assemble assemblers from the parts they’re assembled from.") (12:00) What do these inchworm assembly robots look like? ("It's a two-footed robot with nothing but a pair of legs...") (13:03) What is a typical day for you? (17:17) How did you test this aircraft? ("It looks like an aerogel, this sort of cloud-like material...for NASA, it was not a typical aerostructure.") (21:35) What has been the reaction from people, especially traditional aircraft manufacturers? ("Skepticism...") The task-specific "inchworm" robots shown here can be designed to collaborate and assemble structures of potentially unlimited scale (Image Credit: Center for Bits and Atoms) At the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, Ben and his team are working with corporate sponsors to commercialize the aerostructure. Possible applications exist both in the air and on Earth, to support new ideas in wind turbines, bridges, and housing. (The team is currently working with Airbus to develop rapidly assembled drone systems and personal aircraft.) An initial, hand-assembled version of the wing, illustrating the lattice pattern used in its design. (Image Credit: NASA/Kenny Cheung) Subscribe to the Here's an Idea newsletter. What do you think of the morphing MADCAT wing? Share your questions and comments below.