A "Warped" Design

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Hollywood has often portrayed flying machines the morphed into various shapes and sizes. In the not-too-distant future, some of that technology may move from the silver screen to the wild blue yonder. Lockheed Martin was recently awarded a multimillion-dollar U.S. Air Force contract to study technology that would allow the development of an aircraft that could change shape as flight conditions or missions change. The company's Palmdale, Calif., plant won the $9.3 million contract. The facility will "develop and demonstrate technologies for seamless, aerodynamically efficient, aerial vehicles capable of radical shape change," an Air Force spokesman said in a printed statement. While the military is pursuing a tactical advantage with this research, NASA officials are more interested in this technology as a way to make aircraft quieter, more fuel-efficient, safer and more maneuverable. While some previous aircraft designs featured sweep-wing designs, NASA is focused on eliminating the mechanics needed for this design method and introduce instead a system where embedded "smart" materials and actuators work to change an airplane's shape. "Able to respond to the constantly varying conditions of flight, sensors will act like the nerves in a bird's wing and will measure the pressure over the entire surface of the wing," a NASA Langley Research Center document says. "The response to these measurements will direct actuators, which will function like the bird's wing muscles. Just as a bird instinctively uses different feathers on its wings to control its flight, the actuators will change the shape of the aircraft's wings to continually optimize flying conditions," it adds.