Army seeks shape-changing biomimetic aircraft

A research solicitation wants plans for aircraft able to reshape itself in mid-air, depending upon mission requirements.

Taking a leaf from nature -- and the movie Transformers, the U.S. Army wants aircraft that can change their physical shape to meet the requirements of a mission.

The concept is called "biomimetics," or designing equipment based on phenomena found in nature. For example, the Wright brothers were inspired to design their first airplane after observing birds in flight. 

The Army research solicitation, called Adaptive Biomimetic Aircraft Structures (ABAS), aims to exploit biomimetics to create manned or unmanned aircraft that can reshape itself in mid-air. The problem is that "current Army aircraft lack the speed, range and payload needed to maintain tactical overmatch in the anticipated future battlefield," according to the solicitation. "Contributing to this performance shortfall is the single-configuration design of today's aircraft structures. Current airframes, rotor blades, wings, control surfaces, and other structures are a design compromise for all expected flight conditions and missions."

"Army Aviation needs structures technology enabling real-time, on-the-fly adaptation to configurations optimized for different flight conditions or missions, enhancing capability via gains in speed, range, and payload. Nature provides numerous examples of biological structures adapting to various environments and situations. Mimicking these natural phenomena can inspire efficient structures enabling more capable, higher performance aircraft," the solicitation states.

Interestingly, the Army is using biomimetics to enhance some features but not others.  The Army wants "weight-efficient concepts capable of optimizing aircraft structural and aerodynamic configuration."  However, "improvements in aircraft survivability or operational availability resulting from the adaptive biomimetic concepts are of secondary interest." This suggests that the Army is more eager for technology that enhances an aircraft's adaptability in achieving its mission, and less concerned about how many missions the aircraft can fly, and whether it will make it back home.

The Army isn't the only one looking at biomimetically-enhanced aircraft. Airbus has plans to someday fly a transparent bird-shaped airliner. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Biomimetic Robotics Lab has developed several animal-like robots, including the four-legged quadrupedal "Cheetah."