After two years of research and testing, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and Texas A&M University have made major developments in fluid-structure interaction testing, thus creating a tool that enables researchers to process aircraft structure designs in record time.

The end goal of this cutting edge tool is to design an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that has the ability to alter its shape while in flight.

A UAV’s mission is relatively straightforward: It flies to a target and once there it works as an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform and/or as a weapons/attack platform. Once objectives on target are completed, the UAV needs to make it back to base and land safely.

UAVs are small and inherently have a limited range. A UAV that could change shape during flight, would be able to achieve a more slender profile while flying to and from a target, thus being more efficient in conducting the operation.

In an Army press release, an aerospace engineer at the research laboratory, Dr. Francis Phillips, expounded on this subject:

“Consider a mission where the vehicle needs to get quickly to station, or dash, and then attempt to stay on station for as long as possible, or loiter. During dash segments, short wings are desirable in order to go fast and be more maneuverable, but for loiter segments, long wings are desirable in order to enable low power, high endurance flight.”

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To scientifically determine the best shape for a UAV based on operating conditions, hundreds of iterations of computer testing and data collection are required. This process is undoubtedly cumbersome and previously was painstakingly slow. Dr. Phillips says that due to the advent of this new computational tool, aircraft shape test analysis results can have a turnaround time of just 16 hours, whereas before, it used to take a week.

This new data tool has allowed the entire UAV testing and design process to become a more efficient and swift process. Researchers are receiving good data for wing lengths, weight, and structural shape, helping them better understand how UAVs perform in a variety of operating conditions.

Looking to the future, Dr. Phillips said, “In terms of fielding something within the soldiers’ hands, that’s probably going to be much further out, just as far as the development cycle and then transitioning to an industry partner to ultimately field it.”

This new technological development was presented at the AIAA Aviation Forum and Exposition by the researchers of the Army Research Laboratories and Texas A&M University.