Optimising wing aerodynamics with composites for net zero aviation

The Airbus eXtra Performance Wing demonstrator

The Airbus ‘eXtra Performance Wing’ demonstrator programme focuses on accelerating and validating technologies that will improve and optimise wing aerodynamics and performance for any size of wing, helping to decarbonise the aviation industry. 

The project will integrate breakthrough active control technologies that can adapt the wing shape to suit flight conditions, improving aircraft performance and reducing emissions, whilst being compatible with any propulsion system.

Composites in aircraft wings

Longer, thinner and lighter, the eXtra wing design takes its inspiration from nature. Just as an eagle uses its wing and longer wing tailing feathers to control its flight, the new active control technologies embedded in the wing enables it to adapt its shape, span and surface for increased flight efficiency, therefore reducing impact on the environment. The technologies include pop-up spoilers, multifunctional trailing edges of flaps that can dynamically change the surface of the wing in flight, and a semi-aeroelastic hinge to control a moving wingtip. A longer wing or ‘high aspect wing ratio’ is much more flexible, and therefore more susceptible to turbulence or ‘gust loads’. Composites deliver the strength, durability and flexibility of design that the eXtra Performance Wing demands.

How is the NCC involved?

The NCC is working with Airbus on the design of the demonstrator wing and the manufacture of primary components of the ‘wing box’ structure to host the new active control technologies. The wing box manufacturing comprises the upper and lower skin cover, and the leading edge and trailing edge spars.

The design phase is a partnership between Expleo, the University of Bristol, National Composites Centre and Airbus and is partly funded through a grant from the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). The project launched on 1st April 2021 and the design phase is expected to complete in the summer of 2022. The manufacturing phase will then commence, followed by conversion of the aircraft with the new wings, ready for the flight testing phase. The project team is adapting a Cessna Citation VII aircraft for flight tests.

In April 2022, Airbus completed wind-tunnel testing of a scaled-down, partly 3D-printed model of the aircraft incorporating the eXtra Performance Wing, to validate the concepts prior to flight tests.

Active control technologies

Active control allows aircraft to maximise their efficiency when flying outside of the typical, presupposed parameters – for example, when undertaking much longer or shorter missions. They adapt their wing shape and area to the particular weight, speed and altitude of the aircraft as dictated by the task or mission profile. It also allows the wing weight to be significantly reduced by reducing the effects of gusts on the stress in the wing.

As a result of this flexibility, active control technologies also reduce fuel burn adjusting to the flying conditions of different missions. The new design is expected to deliver, for example, a significant fuel burn reduction as well as a carbon saving for the next generation of aircraft.

Enhancing expertise and capabilities

The NCC team will gain unique experience in the design and manufacture of ‘flying parts’ process controls, a new level of rigour and knowledge that can be shared with the UK composites supply chain, opening new opportunities for non-aerospace composites companies to gain access to the aerospace market, as well as the wider UK aerospace sector.

Developing the eXtra Performance Wing in Britain will help grow the supply chain skills that will help keep the UK a global centre of excellence for aircraft wing manufacture.

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