The MADCAT (Task Adaptive Digital Composite Aviation Architecture Technology) project is carried out by scientists at NASA Ames Research Center. The goal of the project is to develop wings that can adapt to flight conditions in a more important way than traditional flaps.
The team envisioned a wing with an overall shape that could be deformed and adapted to become the most effective shape in any case. Of course, such wings need to be highly flexible, but they also need to respond quickly to aerodynamic requirements. In addition, it must be easy to maintain and repair.
The solution is an ultra-light wing made of carbon fiber composite materials. Injection moulding is used to create lattice structures, which NASA calls "blocks" and combines in a cross-modular manner. "This pattern change creates a structure that can be accurately bent and adapted," the agency explained. "Computers integrated into the wing use algorithms to help it deform and twist into the most effective shape in flight."
The key to successful wing operation is how the MADCAT process works. Traditional computer systems will have centralized processing points, which will receive information and then issue instructions. However, this will lead to unacceptable lags, not to mention the need for a powerful processor. Instead, MADCAT uses smaller distributed processing integrated throughout the wing. Each wing is woven with sensors to collect data on airflow and other factors on the surface of the wing around the wing. Then the data is shared between adjacent nodes, and each sensor acquires its information and combines it with the information around it.
Instead of raw data, each node adds its inferences and conclusions to the content being passed. "In other words," NASA explained, "sensors don't just transmit recorded values - they say what they actually mean, and they can report and interpret airflow patterns in real time and adjust the structure of the wings accordingly."
Unexpectedly, although the wing may be complex, repair will actually be more direct than traditional aircraft. Each block occupies a space called a Volume Pixel, which is the same. This means fewer unique pieces, making replacement easier.
NASA's next challenge is to continue to improve deformation, simplify the structure and improve reliability. Finally, the final design can make CFRP wings suitable for any flight, any mission, or almost any atmospheric conditions.