Memory Metals Shape the Evolution of Aviation

Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator 777 is the testbed for new shape-memory alloy technology.

Shape-memory alloy (SMA) is a functional metal with unique properties that allow it to be trained to move on its own. Researchers at NASA Glenn partnered with Boeing to test how shape-memory alloys can be used in deployable vortex generators (VGs), the tiny fins you might have noticed on airplane wings that help control airflow during flight.

Right now, most VGs on airplanes are static. But innovations with shape-memory alloys allow for the creation of smart VGs, which move when they sense a change in the environment. Airplane designers will be able to use this tool to reduce drag throughout the entirety of a flight, improving overall performance, which then translates into direct benefits for passengers.