On Monday, Sridhar Kota, University of Michigan Herrick Professor of Engineering, was awarded the annual Distinguished University Innovator Award for his research in shape-changing aircraft wings.

The Distinguished University Innovator Award is awarded every year to a University faculty member based on nominations from other faculty members. The recipient receives $5,000 and gives a lecture at the awards ceremony on their research topic.

In a press release, Vice President for Research Jack Hu praised Kota’s research, saying his work was already having broad impacts.

“Sridhar Kota has shown leadership in bridging the gap between theory and practice both in his own research and in his broader engagements with government and industry,” he said. “His efforts on both fronts are laying the foundations for lasting contributions to our society.”

Kota focused on creating shape-changing aircraft wings, designed to manipulate air pressure and wind currents to better sustain flight. The wings take advantage of the “equal and opposite reaction” that occurs from wind rushing beneath the wings’ curved surface.

“Morphing an aircraft wing has been an elusive goal for decades. To be practical, it has to be lightweight, safe, reliable, fault tolerant and cost-effective,” Kota said. “Although the aviation industry, academic researchers, Air Force and NASA have been trying for five decades, the idea of compliant design finally offered a practical solution.”

Kota’s tested and commercialized aircraft wings can have significant impacts on the airline industry. According to Kota, the wings can improve 4-5 percent in fuel savings and 10 percent on the construction of new aircraft designs, which translates to hundreds of millions of dollars per year. In an industry where a 1 percent increase in savings is deemed significant, these results can greatly affect airlines.

The aircraft wings have also been noted to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and aircraft noise.

“Fuel efficiency gains have been validated but if that translates to lower ticket prices or not is an entirely different question — probably not or at least beyond the scope of engineering,” Kota said. “However, associated reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and the impact on environment can be real.”

In addition to his pioneering research, Kota integrates real-world applications into his engineering classes to better prepare and develop his students.

Engineering sophomore Michael Apone related his experiences with Kota, saying he brought a unique perspective to the classroom.

“I think his approach to engineering is fascinating because he looks at nature in a way most people wouldn’t,” Apone said. “We learned about a lot of bio-inspired and bio-mimicked objects, because Dr. Kota looks at the way animals have developed and the way plants thrive and incorporates it into his engineered work.”


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