NASA is developing a flexible carbon fiber wing that could be transformed into new forms in mid-flight, paving the way for weaving mesh intelligence through the aerodynamics of future aircraft. The project, called MADCAT, combines advanced processing, new injection molding techniques and cutting-edge materials.
MADCAT, or Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerotructure Technologies, is the work of NASA's Ames Research Center in California. The objective of the project is to develop wings that can adapt to flight conditions in a more significant way than traditional flaps.
Instead, the team imagined a wing whose complete shape could be transformed and adapted, making it the most efficient way for any circumstance. Such wing would have to be very flexible, of course, but also react quickly to the aerodynamic need. In addition, it would have to be easily maintained and repaired.
The solution is an ultralight wing made of carbon fiber composite. Injection molding is used to create lattice structures, which NASA calls "blocks", which combine in a criss-cross and modular manner. "This variation in the patterns creates a structure that can flex and adapt with precision", explains the space agency. "The computers integrated in the wing use algorithms to help it transform and turn to the most efficient way in mid flight."
The key to successful wing operation is how MADCAT processing works. A traditional computer system would have a centralized point of processing, which would take information and then issue instructions. However, that would lead to an unacceptable delay, not to mention demanding an enormously powerful processor.
In contrast, MADCAT uses smaller and more distributed processing, integrated throughout the wing. Each wing is interwoven with sensors, on the skin of the wing around the nodes, gathering data on factors such as air flow. Then, that data is shared between neighboring nodes, each sensor takes its information and combines it with that of its neighbor.
Instead of raw data, each node adds its inferences and conclusions to what is transmitted. "In other words," NASA explains, "the sensors not only transmit the recorded values, but they tell what those values really mean, and they can inform and interpret the airflow patterns in real time, adjusting the structure of the wing of the plane accordingly. "
Unexpectedly, although the wing can be complex, it is actually easier to repair than a traditional aircraft. The individual blocks occupy a space known as voxel or volumetric pixel, and all are identical. That means fewer unique pieces, which makes it easier to replace them.
The proof of everything that is in the tests, and that's something that NASA has recently completed with a plane 14 feet wide. The next challenge is to continue refining the transformation, as well as making construction easier and improving reliability. In the end, the final design could make wings composed of carbon fiber suitable for any flight, any mission or virtually any weather condition.