A team of engineers from the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Nasa have developed a new lightweight aircraft wing prototype.

Developed from hundreds of tiny identical pieces, the hand-assembled new wing prototype is capable of changing shape to control the aeroplane’s flight, according to the researchers.

Conventional wings normally require ailerons to help control the roll and pitch of the plane.

However, the team designed a system that automatically changes its shape to varied aerodynamic loading conditions.

The new structure features a combination of stiff and flexible components, which allow all or part of the wing to change shape.

“Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures such as antennas.”

Furthermore, the tiny subassemblies are bolted together in an open lightweight lattice framework and covered with a thin polymer layer.

The team used injection moulding with a polyethylene resin in a complex 3D mould to produce the individual sub-units. The resulting wing has a density of 5.6kg per cubic metre.

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In a statement, the researchers said: “The result is a wing that is much lighter, and thus much more energy-efficient than those with conventional designs, whether made from metal or composites.

“Because the structure, comprising thousands of tiny triangles of matchstick-like struts, is composed mostly of empty space, it forms a mechanical ‘metamaterial’ that combines the structural stiffness of a rubber-like polymer and the extreme lightness and low density of an aerogel.”

The new 5m-long prototype wing has been demonstrated and tested in Nasa’s high-speed wind tunnel at Langley Research Center.

Boeing company Aurora Flight Sciences structures researcher Daniel Campbell said: “The research shows promise for reducing cost and increasing the performance for large, lightweight, stiff structures.

“Most promising near-term applications are structural applications for airships and space-based structures such as antennas.”

The team consisted of researchers from Cornell University, the University of California, Nasa Langley Research Center, Kaunas University of Technology, and Qualified Technical Services.

The project has received support from Nasa ARMD Convergent Aeronautics Solutions Program (MADCAT Project) and the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms.