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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 5

The Fluid Future of Shape-Shifting Technology [Video]

Breakthroughs in morphing design endow machines with the flexibility found in nature


This summer FlexSys’s morphing wing flaps will undergo flight-testing at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.
Credit: Sridhar Kota

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Nature is filled with strong, elegant, shape-shifting machines—the wings of a gull, the trunk of an elephant, the branches of a tree. Yet when humans set out to design flexible machines, the result is generally a complicated agglomeration of hard, rigid parts. Sridhar Kota, professor of engineering at the University of Michigan, is among those researchers working on an alternative approach to flexible machines—elastic design.

1. Dilated Peepholes
Sridhar Kota’s company, FlexSys, designed this one-piece polymer iris to distribute strain uniformly throughout the device. Apply pressure to the exterior ring and the iris can change its geometry by 100 percent.

 



2. Micro Machines
Micro electromechanical machines like this tiny motor and motion amplifier are so small that assembling them from multiple parts is highly impractical—one-piece design is the way to go. Kota designed the flexible motion amplifier in this video for researchers at Sandia National Laboratories who needed to find a way to amplify by 10 times the two-micron output of the linear electrostatic motor. The amplifier was tested for 10 billion cycles without failure.

 



3. Causing a Flap
This summer FlexSys’s morphing wing flaps will undergo flight-testing at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center. Kota says that in new aircraft, flexible flaps could boost fuel economy by as much as 12 percent and also reduce landing noise.

 

Videos courtesy of Sridhar Kota

This article was originally published with the title "Shape-Shifting Things to Come."

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