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Nanotechnology Makes Morphing Military Transport Possible

The idea of equipment that can change its shape isn’t science fiction. Today, research using nanotechnology is well under way to develop aircraft wings, propellers, and transport vehicles that can literally change shape to improve performance and efficiency.

Aircraft flap their wings with a little nano help

Researchers have worked on aircraft that swing their wings in close for high-speed flight and extend their wings to provide more lift for takeoff and landing. Unfortunately, the hinges that allow the wings to swing add weight, so NASA has developed a carbon nanotube polymer composite that bends when a voltage is applied. They envision that this type of morphing material will be used in various ways.

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Additionally, aircraft wings will contain smart materials that make them more aerodynamic and easier to control. Such a craft would sense conditions while in flight. Sensors in the wings will measure the pressure on each wing’s surface. Using actuators, the wing can respond, even changing shape, just as a bird’s wing responds to air pressure or weather.

By using such a system of sensors and actuators, along with efficient microprocessors and controls, these aircraft could keep track of not only their environment but also their performance and even the condition of those operating them. This kind of system could save both fuel and lives.

A look at a possible future morphing aircraft. [Credit: Courtesy of NASA]
Credit: Courtesy of NASA
A look at a possible future morphing aircraft.

The military establishment is looking long and hard at morphing aircraft. One reason for their interest is that military aircraft today are designed to perform one kind of mission. For example, one aircraft might excel at reconnaissance, while another is designed for bombing missions.

Features such as the capability to carry more weight, high speed, and a small turning radius are difficult to combine in one aircraft. Because their designs are so specific, aircraft can’t perform more than one role, and in many cases they are limited to certain airfields or ships to use for takeoff and landing.

The Morphing Aircraft Structures (MAS) was started to design and build these shape-changing aircraft for the military. If the military is successful, that would mean that one aircraft might be able to perform more than one role and be able to take off and land from more types of airfields or ships. This flexibility could result in huge savings and much improved efficiency.

Propellers are more efficient thanks to nanotech

DARPA also funds the Mission Adaptive Rotor (MAR) program, which is focused on improving the performance of helicopter rotors. Rotors that can morph would last longer and offer improved performance. These improvements come in part from a reduction in rotor vibration. The improved performance involves an increase in the amount of weight that the helicopter can carry and an extension of its range.

Shape-changing vehicles enabled by nanotechnology

Shape changing isn’t limited to the skies. The Transformer (TX) vehicle being developed by DARPA can travel on roads but is also capable of vertical take-off and landing. The combo land and air vehicle could be operated by anybody for scouting missions or transporting of troops or supplies.

The Transformer would be able to carry four people and use fuel-efficient energy storage systems such as ultracapacitors and batteries. The body of the vehicle could morph to grow wings or pull them back in based on whether the vehicle is on land or aloft.

As military personnel move around in the TX, they could use the capability to fly to circumvent obstacles, go over rough terrain, and avoid landmines or ambush, while retaining the capability to drive on roads.

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