NBAA Convention News

API, FlexSys Venture Taps Possibilities of Morphing Wing

 - October 31, 2016, 1:42 PM

A year after Aviation Partners (API, Booth 3095) announced plans to launch a joint venture with FlexSys to bring wing-morphing technology to market, the new company, Aviation Partners FlexSys (APF), returns to the NBAA Convention with a 15-foot demonstrator that shows a range of possibilities for the FlexFoil technology.

Ann Arbor, Mich.-based FlexSys has been developing the FlexFoil technology for the past 16 years and has validated the concepts in NASA tests on a Gulfstream III. The patented technology involves variable-geometry control surface mechanisms that use the natural flexibility of aerospace materials to continuously reshape. The technology provides seamless continuous surfaces that can morph from -9 degrees to 40 degrees.

API teamed with FlexSys as part of an effort to expand its reach into new technologies that would be a fit with its underlying engineering expertise and its ability to move new technologies to market, said API International president Tom Gibbons. The two companies agreed to join forces a year ago to bring this technology to market. Since then, API and FlexSys have set up APF and begun to field inquiries for numerous technological possibilities.

But to truly showcase the wing-morphing technology, “We needed to create something that either flies or demonstrates to the world what we’re talking about in its applications,” said API COO Hank Thompson.

The demonstrator, on display at the API/APF booth, is designed as a representative wing that will provide a glimpse into about a half-dozen potential applications or combinations of applications. These include active flaps, ailerons and leading edges, as well as a combination of leading edge and trailing edge that provides for various high-lift, deicing and/or active load-alleviation configurations.

The latter application, which can facilitate modifications such as winglets without the need for additional structural reinforcement, is of particular interest to API, which has long specialized in winglets.

“It is really cool to see this wing—without any lines or hinges—change its shape,” Gibbons noted, adding that the ability to make an entire wing morph is the “holy grail” that would provide numerous possibilities. “I no longer need to have a segment that is just a flap or just an aileron. If the whole wing can optimize aerodynamic needs in different phases of flight, that simply is not something that has been a tool at designers’ disposal until now,” said Gibbons.

For years, aerospace engineers have looked at ways to eliminate flaps or certain flap configurations and create more seamless surfaces, Thompson said. “Current configurations give us a great deal of mechanical joints and weight. FlexFoil simplifies that and gives us the ability to morph surface more seamlessly.”

“Aerodynamicists now can look and say, ‘I can come up with something that has more performance and fundamentally get us over a hump in the way the aircraft performs,’” Gibbons added.

“We are excited about the potential of our active wing technology,” added APF CEO Joe Clark. “It will allow the aerodynamics of an aircraft to be continually changed during flight to achieve its maximum potential.”

While the demonstrator will show about a half-dozen applications, Thompson said APF engineers are just beginning to realize the technology’s potential. “I don’t know if we fully understand how far we can take it. Our demonstrator will show multiple [wing] applications, but it’s as readily applied to the empennage, the vertical and horizontal stabilizers; and it may even be applicable for boundary-layer fins that move. Who knows? I don’t believe we’ve even begun to saturate the total potential applications of the technology.”

But, while noting that FlexFoil “is new, disruptive, leading edge technology…in the process of maturing,” Thompson said it is ready now to apply to clean-sheet designs. “It has progressed from research and development to the point now where it is ready to be designed for commercial application.”

Having said that, he noted the first application might be a retrofit. While not ready to detail the application or customer, APF has a non-disclosure agreement for a potential use as a trailing-edge device that morphs during the entire flight, which Thompson said creates “the best possible span mode distribution,” making the wing more efficient.

While the technology is on display at a business aviation show, the executives see applications and interest across the spectrum of commercial and business aircraft. Gibbons said APF can license the technology to an OEM and/or provide engineering support for its adaptation to new and existing designs.

For API, this technology is just the first of a number of new branches the company is contemplating. “We continue to field a lot of inventions and technologies or people with ideas,” he said. “We continue to look globally. Our business has been global and that brings us a lot of opportunity and more exposure to great ideas.”

The goal is to find “something that fits well with what we do, which is turn engineering work and technology into a product, get it certified and market and sell it, ensuring along the way that it will be a good fit for the API brand,” Gibbons said. API believes it has found that fit with FlexSys, he concluded.