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New Technological Advances in Wing Design

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Aeronautics is at the forefront of engineering, with new technology and fresh ideas being developed constantly. The main concern at the moment regarding aircraft design is the environmental effects it has, specifically, how much fuel an aeroplane burns. There have been many innovations in this field. Here, I will talk about a few of the fairly new concepts linked to wing design that I have come across.

Morphing Winglets

As shown above, the winglets of a plane reduce drag and increase handling and manoeuvrability. By reducing drag, they can increase fuel efficiency from 3-5%. However, as the angle of flight, the speed, and altitude changes, so does the wingl1et efficiency.

Normally, the winglet is at an angle of 25o to the vertical (the cant angle), which creates maximum efficiency.

Presently, Boeing and Airbus are designing the winglets so that the cant angle is able to change during flight. It will be altered for take-off, climb, cruise and landing approach. This way, drag will be a minimum, and the fuel efficiency will be constantly at 5%. Also, because there will be less fuel needed to fuel the engine, the engine will make less noise, meaning the landing will be quieter. The winglets will also be able to be flattened, which will create a greater lift force on the plane.

Boeing has patented the winglet design, which involves using smart alloys (or shape-memory alloys) to move the winglet. These are metals that are bent into certain shapes, and can restore to their original position easily (which they have “remembered”).

Both Boeing and Airbus have very different ideas about how to go about creating what are being referred to as morphlets. Both teams face rigorous safety challenges before their ideas can be put into action.

Air Friction Reduction

At any subsonic speed (a speed below the speed of sound) air runs smoothly over the wings of an aeroplane without any distress. Conversely at supersonic speeds, which are speeds greater or equal to the speed of sound (768 mph), air flow becomes rather turbulent just a few centimetres behind the leading edge of the wing. This turbulence causes friction on the wing and a massive amount of drag. 50% of friction on a plane is due to air on the skin of the plane.

Engineers came up with the solution of having a perforated layer of titanium on the top surface of the wing, with a fan underneath. The fan sucks the air from the top of the wing through 10 million holes in the titanium panel keeping the air flow over the wing constant, and increasing the lift-to-drag ratio by 10%. This reduction is fairly large, and means the weight of the plane is smaller, thus less fuel is needed.

This has been extremely effective in such planes as the F-16XL, which can travel at mach 2 (twice the speed of sound). It is shown in the image.

Blended Wing

One of the most interesting technological breakthroughs in aircraft design is one which is currently in the process of being engineered; the Blended Wing design plane. The design takes a massive turn from modern day aircraft, which have a long fuselage, and take the appearance of a paper aeroplane, making it extremely streamlined, which effectively cuts fuel usage by 20%.

The engines are mounted on the top and the back of the plane instead of under the wings, so noise is reduced relative to the ground.

However, the fact that the design must be kept so streamlined means that there cannot be a tail, which is a vital component needed for control of the plane, i.e. yawing, rolling and pitching. The engineers have come up with a solution to this problem, which entails relying on curved flaps on the edges of the wings, and rudders on the wingtips.

When NASA tested their 5% scale prototype, it flew unexpectedly well; even when it reached its maximum lift, and hit turbulence, it did not roll backwards or roll, contrary to previous designs.

One more problem that the engineers had to overcome was that normally, when the fuselage is tube-shaped, air pressure is evenly spread throughout it, yet when the fuselage is an obscure shape, as was in the design, there is a high amount of stress on the structure. An idea to combat this was by using composite materials to build the structure (materials made from two or more basic materials, of which are separately identifiable on a macroscopic level). These composites would also be used to make pillars in the fuselage itself, to give extra support.

The Future of Aircraft Design

Being at the forefront of modern engineering, the future for aircraft holds prospects that right now, we can only imagine. Wings will not be made from separate parts, all mechanically interlocked and interconnected structures, but integrated “smart” materials that will maximise the aerodynamic potential that an aircraft holds.

One of the most innovative ideas is a wing that morphs into different shapes depending on the dynamics of the flight. All throughout the wing there will be actuators and sensors which detect everything from the air pressure across the wing to the outside temperature, to the altitude, and much like a bird uses different feathers in its wing to control its flight, the aircraft wing will be able to morph and change its shape to perfect aerodynamicity to the conditions in which it is in. The aircraft’s movement would be mitigated in such event as turbulence.

Intelligent systems in the aircraft would act as a “central nervous system” for the plane, so it would be able to process relevant physical responses. This system will have many advantages over current systems of self-maintenance. It will be able to detect fuel-efficiency, safety and noise generated from the aircraft. This, in turn will produce a better ride quality, better manoeuvrability, lower landing speeds and extensive versatility. The image below shows how the wing of an aeroplane could morph while in flight.

Though we are still unsure of how feasible this is, and even if we will be able to develop this kind of technology in the 21st century, it is an extremely interesting concept, and scientists are considering ways to create it.

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