Airbus is testing a new wing that flaps like a bird in flight

The albatross-inspired, 3D-printed eXtra Performance Wing demonstrator hit the wind tunnel in Bristol.

When it comes to chasing efficiency in aviation, without making a switch to carbon neutral fuels while also embracing radically new airframe designs, there’s really not much wiggle room in commercial or business jet development. However, even relatively small aerodynamic improvements can go a long way at this scale, so it’s no surprise that Airbus keeps looking at nature for some high-tech inspiration. After all, the way birds adapt to new flight conditions without wasting much energy is nothing short of remarkable.

Airbus (as well as its partners like the European Union through Flexop and FLiPASED) has been investigating active wing control through several programs in recent years. Launched last September at Filton, near Bristol, The eXtra Performance Wing project is now set to examine onboard technologies (gust sensors, pop-up spoilers and multifunctional trailing edges) to further improve wing performance.

The plan is to use a remote-controlled Cessna Citation VII business jet platform with a moveable wing tips that “flap” when hit with a lot of energy from the atmosphere. Just this week, Airbus tested a scale model in the wind tunnel, which you can see in the image at the top of this post.

Cessna Citation VII business jet with active wing control

As you can probably tell from this render, the partly 3D-printed wind-tunnel model features the lightweight, long-span design of the Airbus wing concept that they hope can provide the much desired emissions benefits.

This is an evolution of the AlbatrossONE concept, which used a carbon fiber model with semi-aeroelastic hinged wing tips to mimic the seabird by unlocking during flight when experiencing wind gusts or turbulence. It’s another great example, like the Kingfisher-inspired Japanese bullet train, of using biomimicry to make vehicles faster and more efficient.

“When there is a wind gust or turbulence, the wing of a conventional aircraft transmits huge loads to the fuselage, so the base of the wing must be heavily strengthened, adding weight to the aircraft,” said Jean-Brice Dumont, Airbus’ Executive Vice-President of Engineering.

“Allowing the wing-tips to react and flex to gusts reduces the loads and allows us to make lighter and longer wings – the longer the wing, the less drag it creates up to an optimum, so there are potentially more fuel efficiencies to exploit.”

On the propulsion side, Airbus is experimenting with additional hydrogen-powered jets, as demonstrated by its modified A380 ZeroE concept. Combine zero-emission fuels with active wing control, and you have the plane of a sustainable future.

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