Indeed, the morphing wing represents a complete design overhaul. Instead of fabricating the wing from sheets of metal riveted together, the engineers started from the inside. They constructed small components that resembled multi-sided spheres or cubes - a kind of Tinker Toy geometry. In tests, the scientists found that the lattice shapes, made from carbon fiber, were strong and stiff but at the same time, lightweight, and had the ability to flex.
They are also modular, which means that individual subunits can be linked together to form a much larger object of any size or shape.
In this case, the scientists linked the subunits together to form a wing about five feet across. Instead of covering it in metal, they covered it in a thin skin of lightweight polymide film, which is used in spacecraft and in solar panels.
It took just two small motors to twist the entire wing. In a wind tunnel test at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, the wing withstood the tunnel's maximum airflow capacity.
For the purposes of this study, the engineers assembled the lattice-like subunits by hand into the experimental wing. But the team already imagines a future where robots piece together the cells, Lego-style, into any shape needed. That could simplify the manufacturing process.
" The next step is a complete morphing aircraft," said Cheung.
The future may also include morphing machines that travel through water, as well as air.
"A great deal of our oceans are unexplored," Cheung said. "It's possible that this kind of manufacturing method could make very efficient swimming submersibles that are also relatively inexpensive to build and maintain."
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