Modern aircraft wings are much more than a simple protruding piece of material, containing elements such as flaps, spoilers, ailerons, and winglets. Winglets have become one of the most important components on the wing since their widespread adoption in the early 2000s. As winglets continue to demonstrate their outstanding ability to increase fuel efficiency and cruising range, many aircraft engineers are working to improve upon their design and function. In this blog, we will discuss how winglets work to bolster efficient flight, as well as the several designs that are currently in use.
It has long been known that wings create wingtip vortices as a side effect of regular operation. These vortices form as high-pressure air from the underbelly of the wing escapes towards the wingtip, causing the air to move upwards and creating a small, rotating wind tunnel. Unfortunately, these vortices contribute to induced drag, which decreases flying efficiency. In the 1970s, NASA installed winglets on the tips of a Boeing 707, which resulted in a 6-9% decrease in fuel quantity needed, and worked as a proof of concept that these elements may be beneficial to aircraft design.
In modern aviation, winglets have become the norm, particularly with high fuel-consuming commercial aircraft. Below is a short description of the most common winglet designs implemented on aircraft.
Canted winglets were the first to be used on early Boeing projects and have continued to be a popular choice amongst the company's designs. They exist as short, gently up-sloped devices found on widebody aircraft such as the Airbus A330, A340, and Boeing 747. While they have effectively served their purpose over the years, canted wingtips are becoming rarer as several of the associated aircraft continue to retire.
Instead of creating a sharp angle at the wingtip, as is the case with the canted winglets, the blended design implements a smooth curve to help prevent interference drag. Displaying an impressive 4% decrease in fuel consumption, 370km in cruising range, and a large amount of CO2 reduction, the blended winglet was quickly adopted by Boeing to be used on their 737-800 model. This design was later adopted by Airbus for the A320, A330, and A350 families of aircraft, in addition to being retrofitted on older models.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is designed with a raked wingtip, which features a noticeably more subdued protrusion angle. The raked wingtip decreases the magnitude of wingtip vortices as effectively as other designs while also carrying the benefit of increased lift due to the greater air mass touching the wing. They are also lighter than similar winglets, helping reduce fuel consumption through weight reduction.
Although split-tip winglets have been used on various aircraft since the 1990s, their design was not perfected until recent implementation on the Boeing 737 Max. This clever design incorporates aspects of blended winglets and raked wingtips while also featuring a downward-extending surface.
One of the newest inventions in wingtip technology is the active wingtip device. This device features a high-sensitivity servo that can actively detect various stressors that may be attenuated by the winglet changing position. Once determining the need, active wingtip systems may be actuated like the flaps, ailerons, or other wing surfaces.
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