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NASA successfully tests shape-changing airplane wings

NASA has successfully tested a shape-changing wing design that could do away with the conventional flaps seen on commercial airliners.

Since last year, NASA researchers have been conducting the tests in collaboration with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and engineering company FlexSys Inc.

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"The completion of this flight test campaign at Armstrong [Flight Research Center] is a big step for NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation [ERA] Project," said the project's manager, Fay Collier. "This is the first of eight large-scale integrated technology demonstrations ERA is finishing up this year that are designed to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment."

NASA first tested the wings last summer. Researchers replaced the aluminum flaps that passengers are familiar with from commercial airlines, and replaced them with "advanced, shape-changing assemblies that form seamless bendable and twistable surfaces."

“We are thrilled to have accomplished all of our flight test goals without encountering any significant technical issues,” Air Force Research Laboratory program manager Pete Flick said in a statement.

The "flexible trailing-edge wing flaps" have the potential to both improve aerodynamic efficiency of airplanes, and reduce the noise generated during takeoffs and landings, according to NASA.

As previous advances have shown, small changes in a plane's design can make a significant difference in energy efficiency. The "sharklet" winglet design on some Airbus planes, for example, can save 4% on fuel.

NASA is working on other next-generation plane designs, including a new tail technology.

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