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NASA Teams Up With Boeing's ecoDemonstrator Program To Test New Vortex Generators – Simple Flying

It’s all about the twist for these new vortex generators.
When it comes to sustainability in aviation, the familiar thoughts drive us toward Sustainable Aviation Fuels and next-generation aircraft that are more fuel efficient than their predecessors. However, a team of NASA and industry researchers have their ideas aimed toward the twist, specifically on metal alloys whose molecules change shape when exposed to a certain temperature range.
To better understand the twist, NASA's researchers highlighted that the metal does not actually bend out of shape, nor does it extend or shrink. In hindsight, the twist of metal is merely on the axis. And NASA will test out the theory with aircraft manufacturer Boeing, as both parties will look into how using torque from that specific form of twisting on the axis can lower or raise an aircraft part that currently doesn't move.
The tests will be carried out on an aircraft's vortex generators (VG), which are small, flat pieces of metal typically seen protruding like fish fins from the surface of an aircraft wing. From these tests, the intended result NASA and Boeing expects is that a twist in the aircraft VGs gives the ability to decrease drag during flight, reducing the airplane's environmental impact and saving airlines some money.
Having begun flight testing in late October and continuing, NASA has been utilizing the 2022 Boing ecoDemonstrator aircraft, a 777-200ER. The partnership doesn't just benefit NASA's interest, as the tests are also part of the Boeing ecoDemonostrator program that aims to bring promising technologies out of the lab and put them through rigorous testing in a natural operational environment.
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Essentially, nothing, as VGs have been around for several decades since they were first widely used on the Boeing 707s back in the late 1950s. From then until now, VGs have been simple wedges bolted to the aircraft's wing surface, disturbing the airflow streaming over the aircraft. The turbulence mixes the layers of air immediately at and above the surface, causing more airflow to cling to the wing and generating more lift.
The lift is crucial for most short phases of the flight, such as the take-off, climb, approach, and landing phases. However, once the aircraft reaches the cruising altitude of the flight, the extra lift generated from the VGs, ironically, becomes quite a drag. But what if shapeshifting alloy could be used to fold the VGs down flat during cruising altitude? Then the possibility of drag being reduced exists, which is what NASA's research is all about.
In reality, the answer is no, which is why NASA's research activity is called Shape Memory Alloy Reconfigurable Technology Vortex Generators, or SMART VGs for short. Although it sounds complicated, the research only involves pairing shape memory alloys, or shapeshifting alloys, to be used with the existing VGs. It also involved finding the right mix recipe for the alloys, ensuring that the end product can change its shape within a specific temperature range.
Besides temperature, the end product had to be flexible enough to fit within certain allowable spaces, all while still being able to generate enough torque to move the VGs. Othmane Benafan, a materials research engineer at NASA, said:
"We've worked with Boeing on this idea from the start. Given some basics of the device’s geometry, the temperatures, etc., we designed the alloys to match those requirements. Boeing then tested the alloys and assembled the VG hardware, which was designed with the help of the German firm Deharde."
The shape memory alloy was subsequently built into a hinge added to the VG. One end of the alloy is fixed in place, while the other end of the alloy is attached to the hinge. As the alloy twists, the end attached to the hinge causes the fin to lower or raise. The SMART VGs were initially tested on a flight in 2019, where they stayed up during take-off and initial climb and then folded down as the airplane ascended through the colder air at 30,000 feet.
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When the aircraft descended for landing, the SMART VGs returned to their extended state. For the 2022 tests, NASA and Boeing designed two different setups – one in which the SMART VG folds down on its own as before, while the second design incorporated a heating element, so the SMART VG could be triggered to move when commanded from the cockpit.
This new capability will indeed be helpful should an aircraft need to operate out of a cold weather airport where the temperature might be low enough that the SMART VGs would fold down unwanted. Albeit flight tests on the Boeing ecoDemonstrator are going well, NASA and Boeing are waiting to declare victory until they examine all their data and compare their results with their pre-test predictions and simulations.
Journalist – Charlotte is currently pursuing a full-time undergraduate degree majoring in Aviation Business Administration and minoring in Air Traffic Management. Charlotte previously wrote for AirlineGeeks. Based in Singapore.

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