Shape shifting: The future of sustainable flight gets SMART

The 2022 Boeing ecoDemonstrator tests the latest vortex generators using shape memory alloy technology.

December 05, 2022 in Our Environment

Technical fellow Tad Calkins looks out the window during a test flight on the 2022 Boeing ecoDemonstrator, his eyes focused on the small orange vertical fins on the wing of the 777-200ER (Extended Range).

These vortex generators are the latest version of a shape memory alloy technology that improves aerodynamic performance – developed in partnership with NASA. 

“Unlike traditional vortex generators that are static on the wings or tail of an airplane, these vortex generators can retract and deploy by employing shape memory alloy reconfigurable technology, also known as SMART VG,” Calkins said. “They can improve fuel efficiency by changing shape at certain temperatures and, this year, we’re testing a newer, improved version of the technology.” 

An airline flying 100 airplanes using these SMART VGs could save as much as 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of fuel a year. That’s the equivalent of taking some 3,800 cars off the road during the same period of time.

The vortex generators are visible on the wing of the 2022 Boeing ecoDemonstrator

Boeing photo

“Traditional vortex generators are useful for certain aspects of flight, like during takeoff and landing, but during cruise conditions they create drag,” said Othmane Benafan, NASA’s material research engineer. “By using shape memory alloy technology, the VGs actuate and stow in cooler temperatures at higher altitudes, saving fuel.”

Read more: NASA looks for a new twist on sustainable aviation

Boeing and NASA first tested the shapeshifting technology on the 2019 Boeing ecoDemonstrator. During that test, the SMART VGs tested stayed up during takeoff and initial climb and then folded down as the airplane ascended through the colder air at 30,000 feet. They returned to their extended state when the airplane descended for landing.

For this second generation, the team incorporated a new design that includes a heating element so the VG could be triggered to move on command from the flight deck. This new capability will allow for enhanced control during variable weather conditions like extreme cold weather at an airport.

By Elisa Hahn