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NASA’s Planes of the Future Will Have Shapeshifting, Bug-Resistant Wings

Even a tiny bug corpse can contribute to air drag.
​Image: ​NASA/Jim Ross

NASA's been updating its aviation tech over the decades to produce the lightest, noiseless, and most fuel-efficient planes for our future flight experiences. This week, the space agency shared details of two technological approaches that are very different, but have the common goal of reducing drag for airplanes.

One is shapeshifting wings: Collaborating with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and engineering design company FlexSys Inc., NASA researchers have just finished some preliminary flight tests for an aircraft fitted with its latest Adap​tive Compliant Trailing Edge (ACTE) morphing wing technology. This replaces an aircraft's conventional mechanical flaps with ones that can change shape.


Equipped with an internal skeleton, these bendy wings twist in response to changing flying conditions, significantly reducing air-drag.

Note the flap on the wing. Image: ​NA​SA

For the flight tests, the aircraft flew with flaps attached to its wings. In the test, the flaps were fixed with angles ranging from -2 degrees up to 30 degrees, but in the future they'll be able to adjust mid-flight.

This aviation tech is part of NASA's Environm​entally Responsible Aviation Project (ERA). As the wing tech is either retrofitted onto existing airplane wings, or made for new airframes, it could lead to a much green-friendlier plane. The tech allows engineers to reduce an airplane wing's structural weight, and to "aerodynamica​lly tailor the wings". The upgraded wing also helps reduce aircraft noises during take-offs and landings, and could lower annual fuel costs by millions of dollars.

Aside from bendy wings, NASA's also set its sights on picking up minimal bug casualties in flight, and to maintain smooth, lami​nar wings—whereby air flows smoothly over the wing's contour. According to a statem​ent on NASA's website, "bug residue is a nuisance on cars, but on some aircraft designs it is also a drag." Having fewer bugs on wings disrupting the smooth flow of air could even reduce fuel consumpti​on by six percent.

To test out this hypothesis, NASA's hefty Boeing ecoDemonstrator Jet landed two days ago in Shreveport, Louisiana—which was deemed the most bug-dense location—for some key "anti-bug research." Throughout May, several different non-stick coatings developed by NASA engineers will be tested during the jet's 15 planned flights.

The coatings will be tested on "two of the leading edge slats on the jet's right wing." As well as collecting data on the coatings, the engineers will test out insect accumulation rates on uncoated surfaces in order to come up with a comparison on bug to non-bug flight circumstances. All in all, the research aims to both determine which coating comes out top, but also to investigate how the distribution of bug fatalities on specific areas of a plane wing affects overall fluidity of flight.

It's interesting to know that the David and Goliath effect even applies to massive aircrafts, whereby a tiny insect can impede a smooth flight.