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Assembled from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, the new wing can change shape to control the plane’s flight. The wing design was tested in NASA’s high-speed wind tunnel at Langley Research Center and is described in a paper published online in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.

“Instead of requiring separate movable surfaces such as ailerons to control the roll and pitch of the plane, as conventional wings do, the new assembly system makes it possible to deform the whole wing, or parts of it, by incorporating a mix of stiff and flexible components in its structure,” explained co-author Benjamin Jenett, a graduate student in MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, and his colleagues.

“The tiny subassemblies, which are bolted together to form an open, lightweight lattice framework, are then covered with a thin layer of similar polymer material as the framework.”

“The result is a wing that is much lighter, and thus much more energy efficient, than those with conventional designs, whether made from metal or composites.”

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