Airplanes have had the same basic design for as long as humans have been flying-two wings, a tube-like body and a tail. NASA, however, in collaboration with MIT and other institutions, has decided to change the way airplanes-particularly the wings-are designed. Measuring 14 feet or four meters wide, the new wing is constructed from thousands of units that fit together and function in a similar way to a bird's wing, says NASA research engineer, Nick Cramer.

"Something like a condor will lock its joints in while it's cruising, and then it (adjusts) its wing to a more optimal shape for its cruising, and then when it wants to do a more aggressive maneuver it'll unlock its shoulder. That's a similar response to what we're doing here," Cramer said in an interview.

The craft takes the shape of a flying wing, similar to a NASA plane called the X-48, or the B-2 Spirit Bomber. Its construction, however, sets it apart even further. The wing is comprised of many small hollow components that bolt together, making it stiff and light. Those components are made out of plastic and shaped like octahedra, which look like two pyramids back-to-back. Some of them are reinforced with glass fiber, and some aren't, meaning that the reinforced units are rigid and the others are "squishy," says Ben Jenett, a doctoral candidate at the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT.

The research team created two prototypes, each with a wingspan of 14 feet. In one of them, they also added internal actuators that could move the wingtips and morph the wing shape. If the plane were actually flying-in this case, they tested it in a NASA wind tunnel-those actuators would allow the craft to do things like roll or even produce more lift.

The ultralight modular structure can also be easily packed down to allow transport, which also makes it potentially the ideal package for another purpose-to send into space. "All those things go very well with being launched into orbit and being assembled into a very large space structure," said Cramer. "So that's a very attractive application that we're actively investigating the robotic assembly of these lattice-like structures in space."

Jenett sees applications for this type of aircraft design for "high altitude, long-endurance aircraft," he says, for jobs like communications or observation. That means that you shouldn't expect to fly in one. A crucial issue is integrating the material into current systems, which would likely require a total upheaval of the traditional approach to designing planes. And that demands time, research and, of course, money.