Engineers often turned to nature to overcome complex problems. They look at how nature solves problems in order to adapt those solutions to human creations. A good case in point is a brand-new commercial air wing with a special feature inspired by the albatross. That feature is a hinged wing tip that can be unlocked and allowed to flap in the wind.
The carbon fiber and fiberglass wing has already been tested by Airbus engineers on a scale model. Once testing and development have been completed, it is expected that Airbus will scale up the wing to see how it performs on a full-size aircraft. If it works as advertised, the wing will make it easier for aircraft designers to deal with gusting winds and turbulence.
Maintaining Stable Flight
Regular flyers are very familiar with the effects of wind and turbulence. An otherwise smooth flight could suddenly be turned into a very bumpy ride without warning. In the most severe cases, gusting winds and turbulence can make an aircraft very difficult to control. Airbus hopes to address some of those issues with its AlbatrossOne project.
The project gets its name from one of the unique abilities the albatross has. The albatross is capable of locking its wings in place at the shoulders in order to achieve long-distance soaring. Should the bird encounter wind gusts, it can unlock its wings to maneuver and maintain stability.
Airbus is exploring that same technique for maintaining more stable flight for its commercial aircraft. They are not the first to look to the albatross, though. Military manufacturers have been using hinged wings for decades to allow for more compact air storage on carriers. But Airbus is the first to design a flapping wing system purposely to combat turbulence and wind gusts.
Unlocking During Flight
The trick in all of this is to design a system that can be safely unlocked when necessary, but then locked again when not needed. What seems so simple on the ground is a lot more complicated at 30,000 feet. And if locking and unlocking fails during flight, the consequences could be disastrous.
Setting all of that aside, the concept is actually a fascinating one. Unlocking the wing tips and allowing them to flap around reduces the load put on the rest of the wings during flight. In contrast, conventional wings transfer tremendous loads to the body of a plane during high turbulence conditions. That is why passengers feel turbulence as much as they do.
Flapping wing tips provide the flexibility necessary to slice through turbulence while putting less stress on the fuselage. According to Airbus, there is an added benefit: the albatross design allows for longer and lighter wings to create less drag and increase fuel efficiency.
Composites Make It Possible
The fact that carbon fiber and fiberglass are the materials of choice for the AlbatrossOne wing is not lost on those who follow the composites industry. Much of the innovation in aerospace over the last 20 years or so is a direct result of composite materials that reduce weight without sacrificing strength.
At Rock West Composites in Salt Lake City, Utah, no one is surprised to learn that the new Airbus wing is made from carbon fiber and fiberglass. They say that both materials are ideal for aerospace manufacturing in an era when builders are trying to design bigger planes capable of carrying more passengers.
Airbus is pleased with the results of the AlbatrossOne project thus far. All eyes will be on them as they seek to ramp up to full scale testing.