NASA invited social media mavens to tour its Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California. One project involves this Gulfstream III (right), which is testing new flexible wing technology.

Excerpt from
By Thom Patterson

You know those little “winglets” that point up from the tips of airliner wings? Those were developed by . And, you know those little grooves in runways that channel away standing water?

NASA again.

America’s space agency isn’t just about space.

It also develops ways to make our airliners safer and more .

Guess what? You may have been flying with NASA for years, and didn’t even know it.

-shifting wings? They’re coming

Now, an ongoing project could radically change the way airliners look and, more importantly, save hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fuel costs.

NASA calls it the Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edge project, or ACTE.

It’s best described in three words: Shape. Shifting. Wings.

Those words sound like science fiction, but NASA and a company called Flexsys are developing wings that change shape in to conditions and weather.

Superflexible very strong composite materials make it possible.

What does that mean to travelers?

You’ probably looked out the window of an airliner to see the hinged metal flaps on the rear edge of a wing. New flexible materials allow the wing to change shapes without hinges.

Project manager Tom Rigney compared the flexible wings to “watching a bathtub bend. You don’t something shaped like that to bend into a very fluid looking shape.”If these new wings end up on airliners in the coming decades, they’ll transform our flying experience into smoother, more comfortable and less expensive journeys.

But don’t expect them until after 2025, said Rigney.

Someday this new wing technology may join the list of NASA innovations that have made air travel safer and more convenient.

Here are five big examples

1. Airborne wind shear detection

A weather phenomenon called wind shear poses danger to airliners during takeoffs and landings. Wind shear involves sudden changes in wind speed, horizontally or vertically.

Airplanes now have sensors that can predict it while in flight.

In the 1980s and ’90s, NASA conducted wind shear research and validated the technology surrounding the sensors.

2. Digital fly-by-wire

Older airliners used heavy cables and pulleys to connect the cockpit controls to the wings and tail. Now, thanks to NASA research in the 1960s and ’70s, pilots control newer airliners via electronic wire-based systems.

3. Lightning protection standards

Airliners are safer from lightning strikes now, due to NASA research during the 1970s and ’80s. What NASA learned has helped protect airliner avionics and electronics from damage by lightning strikes.

NASA developed serrated shapes on jet engine housings as a way to cut noise.
NASA developed serrated shapes on jet engine housings as a way to cut noise.

4. Engine nozzle chevrons

Chevrons — serrated shapes on the rear edges of the nacelles, the jet engine housings — cut noise in the cabin and on the ground. These were developed thanks to NASA computer simulations in the 1990s and 2000s.

5. Winglets

Vertical extensions developed by NASA during the 1970s and ’80s led to airliner “winglets,” which allow to slice through the air more efficiently, saving fuel and money.