Have you ever watched birds as they move through different phases of flight? Wings spread wide as they ride updraughts or tucked further in as they descend quickly toward a likely meal. Twisting and flexing their wings and feathers to maximise their efficiency. What if the shape of a wing on our airliners could be changed in much the same way? Let’s face it, watching birds gave us the idea of flight in the first place and we should continue to learn from them.
Perhaps a full emulation of bird flight might be a little disconcerting to a passenger looking out the window. Wings flapping may not be the way to go, but there are still many areas where today’s aircraft wings can be improved. Both Boeing and Airbus have been competing in the area of wing technologies for years. Today we have Winglets for Boeing and Sharklets for Airbus where the addition of those mechanisms on the wingtips have gone a long way to reducing drag and therefore saving the industry billions of dollars and reducing emissions. Composite materials, folding wingtips and various other technologies have been seen on the latest airliners bringing even more efficiencies.
At a summit in Toulouse on 22 September 2021, Airbus’ Chief Technical Officer, Sabine Klauke, proudly shared details of what she referred to as the X-Wing. The X-Wing is another instance of Airbus’ technology-based solutions which were working toward decarbonising aviation. The technology of the X-Wing is based on nature and like birds enabled a wing to change shape and span depending on the phase of flight. This means the wing would always be efficient for that phase of flight. To achieve this the new wing sported sensors to detect wind gusts giving it the ability to make changes according to the conditions. These changes include pop up spoilers or plates that can pop up perpendicular to the airflow, multifunctional trailing edges and a semi-aeroelastic hinge.
The project has been running for around 6 years now and Airbus hopes to have the wing flying by the mid-2020s.
The testing of the concept is being carried out by the Airbus subsidiary UpFirst. Using a Cessna Citation VII business jet platform, there will be 3 wings produced to test the concept from different standpoints. These include:
- Understanding system integration.
- Comparing real life testing with computer modelling.
- Ramping up industrial production.
As well as the flying efficiency of the new wing, Airbus is looking at the production process and how it can be done as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The idea is to make the wing universally adaptable to all the airliners in its stable.
As we move toward net zero-carbon by 2050, these new technologies are becoming increasingly important to drive down emissions and improve efficiencies. Using biomimicry to achieve those ends makes a lot of sense.
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