researchers from MIT and NASA have developed a radically new kind of airplane wing made up of hundreds of tiny identical pieces. the wing can change shape and could increase the efficiency of aircraft flight, production, and maintenance, according to MIT news.


the design uses a mix of stiff and flexible, tiny subassemblies, which are bolted together to form an open, lightweight and flexible lattice framework covered with a thin layer of similar polymer material. this makes it possible to deform the whole wing, or just parts of it.

MIT and NASA develop flexible shape-shifting airplane wing

header image: eli gershenfeld, NASA ames research center

above: NASA



the structure is composed mostly of empty space, forming a mechanical ‘metamaterial’ that combines the structural stiffness of a rubber-like polymer and the extreme lightness and low density of an aerogel. whilst it boasts the same stiffness as rubber, the resulting lattice has a density of 5.6 kilograms per cubic meter compared to rubber which has a density of about 1,500 kilograms per cubic meter.


the design enables the wing to change shape automatically, adjusting itself to whatever configuration is needed for the current phase of flight (takeoff, landing, steering, etc.). because of this it could perform better than traditional wings, which are not designed to maximize performance during any part of a flight.

MIT and NASA develop flexible shape-shifting airplane wing

image: kenny cheung, NASA ames research center



to demonstrate the basic working of the wing, researchers created a meter-long prototype a few years ago. the new version is about five times as long and comparable in size to the wing of a real single-seater plane and promises to enable scalable production levels. whilst it took several minutes to make each part of the previous wing using a waterjet cutting system, the new ring uses injection molding with polyethylene resin in a complex 3D mold, and produces each part in just 17 seconds.

MIT and NASA develop flexible shape-shifting airplane wing

image: eli gershenfeld, NASA ames research center



the research shows promise for reducing cost and increasing the performance for large, light weight, stiff structures,’ says daniel campbell, a structures researcher at aurora flight sciences, a boeing company, who was not involved in this research.most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas.


project info


researching bodies: MIT/NASA

source: MIT news

journal paper: smart materials and structures