ROBOTS IN DISGUISE

NASA and the US Air Force successfully tested a plane with shapeshifting wings

It’s not quite a Transformer, but it’s getting there: NASA and the United States Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) have teamed up to develop a plane with wings that can change shape mid-flight. NASA has flown 22 research flights over the past six months using the technology, and it passed with flying colors.

According to FlexSys, the company that designed the morphing wing flaps, the technology can save up to 5% on fuel costs when retrofitted on existing planes, and up to 12% when implemented on new aircraft. It also can reduce noise during takeoff and landing by up to 40%.

“We are thrilled to have accomplished all of our flight test goals without encountering any significant technical issues,” AFRL program manager Pete Flick said in a press release. “The technology now is ready to dramatically improve aircraft efficiency for the Air Force and the commercial aviation industry.”

Here’s how the tech works:

The test plane, a modified Gulfstream III business jet, was flown with wing angles ranging from -2° to 30°. Traditional plane flaps open and close to maximize efficiency when flying. But this new technology—called Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge, or ACTE—would be even more efficient, and, you know, just much cooler.

There’s no timetable yet for when it could be implemented into military or commercial airplanes—and there’s still some more testing to be done—but NASA and the US Air Force are making steady progress on building a quieter, more fuel-efficient plane of the future.

Watch one of the test flights from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center here.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search