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NASA testing shape-shifting wings that make planes more efficient

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The first airplane ever flown, the Wright Flyer, used "wing-warping," in which pulleys twisted the trailing edge of the airfoil for roll control. Ironically, NASA is now revisiting that tech in a way by flight-testing the FlexFoil, a system that replaces a plane's mechanical flaps with a shape-shifting wing. Since 1911, almost every airplane made has used mechanical flaps for climbing, descents and slow flight. While effective, they're aerodynamically inefficient thanks to the gaps and acute angles, as you may have noticed (in horror) when you're sitting near the wing of a passenger jet.

NASA is testing the new wing surface, also known as Adaptive Compliant Trailing Edges (ACTE), on its Gulfstream III testbed (above). The first flights went smoothly, though the surfaces were locked into a fixed position used for takeoff and landing. Future tests will use multiple flap settings and different phases of flight to verify if the tech is feasible on commercial airplanes. NASA said that if that happens, it has the potential to substantially reduce noise and save hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel costs annually.

[Image credit: NASA/Ken Ulbrich]

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