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NASA, MIT test wild shape-shifting airplane wing

It's a mighty morphin' power wing.

MIT and NASA engineers tested this new wing design in a wind tunnel.
Kenny Cheung/NASA Ames Research Center

A team of NASA and MIT engineers has created a new kind of airplane wing, and it resembles a mini futuristic version of a B-2 stealth bomber. It doesn't just look cool, it behaves much differently than previous wing designs.

The lightweight wing is capable of changing shape in response to outside forces, so it could conceivably morph into the most efficient configuration possible for takeoff, cruising and landing.   

The hand-assembled prototype wing, which went through testing in a NASA wind tunnel, is made up of hundreds of small identical parts. MIT describes each injection-molded piece as "essentially a hollow cube made up of matchstick-size struts along each edge."

While the test wing was assembled by hand, the researchers say the process could be automated.

Kenny Cheung/NASA Ames Research Center

"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," the team says. The design would also allow for a variety of wing shapes, kind of like using Lego pieces to make airplanes.

You won't see MIT's wings taking off from an airport near you anytime soon, but the concept is exciting. 

"Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures, such as antennas," Aurora Flight Sciences structures researcher Daniel Campbell told MIT News. Campbell was not involved in the project.

The research team published its work on Monday in the journal Smart Materials and Structures.

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