Morphing wing technology completes initial flight tests

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NASA researchers have completed initial flight tests of a new morphing wing technology that could reduce fuel costs, airframe weight and decrease aircraft noise during take-offs and landings.

Working with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and FlexSys Inc, the test team at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, flew 22 research flights over six months with experimental Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) flight control surfaces that are claimed to offer significant improvements over conventional flaps used on existing aircraft.

AFRL began work with FlexSys in 1998 through the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. AFRL and FlexSys developed and wind tunnel tested several wing leading and trailing edge designs for various aircraft configurations through to 2006. In 2009, AFRL and NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) project agreed to equip a Gulfstream III jet with ACTE flaps designed and built by FlexSys, incorporating its proprietary technology.

ACTE technology, which can be retrofitted to existing airplane wings or integrated into entirely new airframes, enables engineers to reduce wing structural weight and to aerodynamically tailor the wings to promote improved fuel economy and more efficient operations while also reducing environmental and noise impacts.

In a statement, Fay Collier, ERA project manager said: “This is the first of eight large-scale integrated technology demonstrations ERA is finishing up this year that are designed to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment.”

According to NASA, the test aircraft was flown with its experimental control surfaces at flap angles ranging from -2 degrees up to 30 degrees. Although the flexible ACTE flaps were designed to morph throughout the entire range of motion, each test was conducted at a single fixed setting in order to collect incremental data with a minimum of risk.

“We are thrilled to have accomplished all of our flight test goals without encountering any significant technical issues,” said Pete Flick, AFRL Program Manager from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “These flights cap 17 years of technology maturation, beginning with AFRL’s initial Phase 1 SBIR contract with FlexSys, and the technology now is ready to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency for the Air Force and the commercial aviation industry.”

The results of these flight tests will be included in design trade studies performed at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, for designing future large transport aircraft.