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In Lighting the Path to Innovation Blog
authored by The Future of Aircraft Design: Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge

Little has changed in the design, orchestration or mechanics of airplane wings since the first plane took off over 100 years ago. Subtle improvements like the use of carbon composites, small angle adjustments and the use of winglets have helped improve aerodynamic efficiencies, but only marginally.

Achieving a seamless control surface of the wing, one that is strong and flexible, has been an ambition for many engineers for years. While the hinged flaps used on today’s wings are adequate, the resulting airflow from the gaps in the structure produces aerodynamic inefficiencies. These inefficiencies result in increased noise during take off and landing, as well as the need for increased fuel consumption. Additionally, the mechanics that move the flaps add weight to the wing, further reducing fuel efficiency.

Recently, FlexSys, in conjunction with NASA and US Air Force Research Laboratory, made headway on the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE). This advancement aims to replace traditional flap forms with malleable monolithic wings, which can change shape while maintaining a smooth surface. These new wings reduce drag by 3-4 percent and when installed in a new aircraft design, could save an estimated 12 percent in fuel costs. Additionally, removing the gap between the wing itself and the flaps will cut noise by 4-6 decibels during take off and landing, helping to reduce noise pollution in areas near to airports.

How it works

The ACTE method works like a pliable skeleton, continuously altering the external shape of the trailing edge, which helps to distribute the loads evenly throughout the structure and reduce drag. With the use of actuators – the motor responsible for wing control – these seamless wings can alter their shape mid-flight, while also handling the same loads as traditional structures. FlexSys replaced mechanisms that have multi-body rigid linkages with flexible components. These flexible elements spread the forces of the actuator throughout the entire flap structure helping to avoid too much strain in any particular area.

This technology can be used in a host of other applications including:

  • Engine inlets
  • Wind turbines
  • Hydrodynamic surfaces
  • Automobiles

The role of Sensuron

NASA used Sensuron’s sensing technology to obtain strain measurements on the ribs of a transition section of the FlexSys wing during ground testing. The technology was also used during high cycle fatigue testing. NASA will also use Sensuron’s RTS125 system during the next flight-testing phase of the ACTE project.

With a single fiber containing thousands of sensors, Sensuron’s technology provides unprecedented levels of data density. As the signals can be read simultaneously, in real-time, and are highly accurate, Sensuron’s FOS system can determine how morphing wing structures are affected by aerodynamic elements while in flight. Since the sensors can be embedded in composite materials, Sensuron’s FOS platforms can be used after the testing phase and included in the final component of the aircraft designs.

While these designs are still in the testing phase, the potential for malleable wings would dramatically improve the efficiencies of aircraft and their structures. This innovation would help to reduce costs, reduce the carbon footprint of airlines and improve the noise levels surrounding airports for local residents.

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