Nasa is testing an experimental bendable and twistable wing flap design in a bid to cut noise emissions and fuel consumption of next-generation aircraft.
As part of the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) project – a joint effort between Nasa and the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) – engineers replaced conventional aluminium flaps of an experimental Gulfstream III aircraft with the advanced shape-changing devices.
Over the next few months, the team will fly the aircraft to assess whether the innovative flaps, seamlessly blending into the wing design, will improve the aircraft’s aerodynamic properties, especially during take-offs and landings when most of the harmful noise is generated.
“We have progressed from an innovative idea and matured the concept through multiple designs and wind tunnel tests, to a final demonstration that should prove to the aerospace industry that this technology is ready to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency,” said Pete Flick, a programme manager at the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).
The innovative flexible flaps were designed and built by Michigan-based FlexSys, backed by AFRL funding. FlexSys developed a variable geometry air foil system called FlexFoil that can be retrofitted to existing airplane wings or integrated into brand new airframes.
FlexFoil’s inventor, FlexSys founder and chief executive officer Sridhar Kota, hopes testing with the modified Gulfstream III jet will confirm the design’s flight worthiness and open doors to future applications and commercialisation.
“The first flight went as planned,” said Thomas Rigney, ACTE project manager at Nasa’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California, where the test flights are being conducted.
“We validated many key elements of the experimental trailing edges. We expect this technology to make future aircraft lighter, more efficient and quieter. It also has the potential to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually in fuel costs.”
During the initial ACTE flight, the experimental control surfaces were locked at a specified setting. Different flap settings will be employed on subsequent flights to collect a variety of data demonstrating the capability of the flexible wings to withstand a real flight environment.
ACTE technology is expected to have far-reaching effects on future aviation. Advanced lightweight materials will reduce wing structural weight and give engineers the ability to aerodynamically tailor the wings to promote improved fuel economy and more efficient operations, while reducing environmental impacts.