Morphing Aircraft Systems

Purdue University
West Lafayette, IN

What if components in aircraft could morph in response to their external conditions, much like a bird changes the shape of its wings? And what if those components could function like an octopus arm, operating independently of a central control system? Inspired by these natural phenomena, a Purdue research team is developing morphing systems for hypersonic vehicles that respond to their environment.

Current hypersonic vehicle designs are highly efficient, but only in specific, preset conditions. As aircraft exceed speeds of Mach 5, the external conditions acting on the body of the vehicle change dramatically. For example, a vehicle designed to perform at Mach 5 conditions becomes increasingly inefficient as it climbs to speeds of Mach 10.

To combat this problem, Andres Arrieta, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and Rodney Trice, Professor of Materials Engineering, are designing aircraft systems with multistable structures — components that can take on multiple shapes in response to external forces. These structures function through a combination of mechanical and material interventions that not only make morphing hypersonic systems possible but may also reduce weight and complexity.

“Current mechanisms that help aircraft maneuver, like the aileron or tail, create noise and drag,” Arrieta said. “These mechanisms are also chains of different parts, and each of these parts are joined by a joint. The more parts and joints you have, the more complex your system becomes. So if we have a structure that is just one big part but is also capable of deforming, then there is potential to reduce not only complexity but also failure, maintenance costs and weight — which is the most important consideration in aviation.”

Developing this type of system requires advanced sensing technology localized to and controlled within the morphing components. The inherent structural responsiveness is programmed to reshape the component depending on conditions such as temperature and speed. This technology is completely independent from other devices that typically control an aircraft’s movement, such as microprocessors and actuators.

“Think about something like an octopus arm that can perform certain behaviors in a completely autonomous way without having to tap into the brain,” Arrieta said. “Similarly, you can create a software program embedded into the structure that is locally processing information and morphing without any input from a central processor.”

The goal is to create a surface that can take on a variety of shapes so the aircraft can maintain optimality over a range of speeds, temperatures and altitudes.

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