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Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Morphing materials form the shape of wings to come

The Engineer
June 20, 2011

Materials engineers in Bristol believe morphing structures could play an vital role the aerospace industry

For the Wright brothers, designing an aircraft that would change shape during flight seemed an obvious solution. When other rigid flying machines failed, Orville and Wilbur Wright took inspiration from the flexible designs of nature. They noticed that birds roll to the side by changing the angle at the ends of their wings and believed they could use the same technique to lean into a turn.

They set about devising a saddle in which the pilot could move his hips from side to side, tugging on a set of cables that warped either the left or right wingtip to provide flight control. This unusual strategy proved successful and, on 17 December 1903, the Wright brothers completed their first airborne flight.

From that day on, engineers turned their sights to the skies to see how fast and how far they could go. But as speeds and loads increased, aircraft encountered problems in wing flutter, control and stability. The solution was to develop lifting surfaces with stronger and stiffer materials. For another century, it seemed that the lessons taught in flexible materials by the Wright brothers had been forgotten.

In the south west of England, however, a group of materials engineers is hoping to change all this. The Advanced Composites Centre for Innovation and Science (ACCIS) at Bristol University is at the leading edge of radical research into intelligent materials. Not far from the centre, major aerospace companies such as Airbus and BAE Systems are keeping a close eye on the research into morphing materials that could one day find its way into the next generation of aircraft.
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