It's a simple idea: Design a wing that changes shape in flight. The Wright brothers tried it with wing warping. And modern aircraft use flaps, ailerons, and variable-geometry wings that sweep back and change aspect ratio in flight.

Now, the University of Dayton will further the development of "morphing" aircraft under a federal contract. The researchers will evaluate flexible-skin concepts that could let wings change shape. They will also develop better simulations and try to find ways to recover energy as the wings move.

In August, a small U.S. company with funding from The Boeing Co. gave the first in-flight demonstration of a truly shape-changing wing. NextGenAeronautics, based in Torrance, Calif., flew a remotely piloted vehicle called the MFX-1 at speeds of 100 to 120 knots. Wing area changed in flight by 40% and the wingspan by 30%. Sweep varied from 15 to 35°.