Vortex Generator Design Tips and Experimentation

by RotoRex | March 12, 2015 | (16) Posted in How To

Why Use Vortex Generators?

Vortex Generators (VGs) can be used for various purposes such as changing stall characteristics, lowering takeoff and landing speeds and even reducing drag (typically on large transonic airliners). All of these effects result from the fact that VGs help to control and alter the boundary layer over a surface. 

In my case, I wanted to improve the stall characteristics of one of my wings. The wing in question is a scratch build balsa wing that has a tendency to tip stall. To correct this problem, I designed VGs that are placed on the outboard 1/3rd of the wing. In depth details of the VG design is provided below. But first I will show you some results to prove that they work. 

Frist I would like to show an image of a “clean” wing with no Vortex Generators. Figure 1 below shows the stalled clean wing fitted with tufts (aka. pieces of string). The tufts give us an idea of what the flow is doing on the surface of the wing. The image shows that the flow is very chaotic over the entire span of the wing. The result while flying is a tip stall that leads to the aircraft rolling over.

Figure 1: Clean Wing Stall 

Now we can take a look at a wing stalling with Vortex Generators installed on the outboard 1/3rd span. As you can see from figure 2, the tufts behind the VGs are straight back while the rest of the tufts on the wing are again arranged in a chaotic fashion. The end result is that the wing has a much more controllable and gentle stall with no bad tip stall characteristics.

Figure 2: Wing Stall with Vortex Generators 

Overall, the Vortex generators helped to mute bad stall characteristics and make the plane more controllable during a stall. The video below shows 4 stalls (2 with a clean wing and 2 with VGs). I have also provides some tips on designing your own Vortex Generators below.


Tips for Designing Vortex Generators 

In this section, I will provide you with all the equations I used to design the Vortex Generators that I installed on my plane. The math is not two involving and just requires some algebra. These equations do have their limitations, which I have mentioned below, but they will serve as a good estimate on designing your VGs. 

1) Determine the shape of your Vortex Generators 

There are many types of Vortex Generators being used on aircraft today. For simplicity, I made simple rectangular VGs for my aircraft. Below is an image containing various styles of VGs. Ultimately, you can make them in almost any shape you want. 

2) Determine Reynolds Number of flow 

Before designing your VGs you need to determine what Reynolds Number you will be operating at. For this you will have to approximate or know the stall speed of your aircraft. Equation 1 below shows how to calculate this value.

Equation 1: Reynolds Number Calculation

3) Determine length of VGs and their location along the chord of your wing 

Next you will need to determine the length of the VGs and where along the chord of the wing the VGs will be placed. The length of your VGs should be around 5-8% of the chord length of your wing. This is just a value that I have found to work for the square VGs I made.

The length of your VGs should be around 5-8% of the chord length of your wing.

Now you can calculate the position of the VGs along the chord. The VGs should be placed just in front of the laminar to turbulent transition of the boundary layer on your wing. This transition point is located at approximately 16% back on the wing chord from the leading edge. Thus you will want to place the leading edge of your VGs at a length equal to (16% of the chord – length of VG) back from the leading edge of your wing. This will place the VGs just in front of the laminar to turbulent boundary layer transition. 

Place the leading edge of your VGs at a length equal to (16% of the chord – length of VG) back from the leading edge of your wing

4) Determine the height of your VGs 

Next you will want to determine the height of your VGs. VGs work to control the boundary layer and thus they are most effective inside the boundary layer. On larger general aviation aircraft and airliners, VGs typically have a height 80% that of the laminar boundary layer right before the laminar to turbulent transition point on the wing. However, on model aircraft that will typically result in a VG with a height well less than 1/64th of an inch (my model has a boundary layer height of 0.00097 inches). This makes them very hard to manufacture and thus I made my VGs have a height of 1/8th of an inch to make them easier to handle. To calculate the height of the laminar boundary layer on your wing before the transition point you can use equation 2 below. 

Equation 2: Height of Boundary Layer Before Transition Point.

5) Calculate span wise spacing of VGs 

The next step is to determine the spacing of the VGs along the span of the wing. To do this I derived an equation which determines the size of the vortex being generated by the VGs. This equation is derived from the lift equation and the equations governing vortex flow. The end result is equation 3 below. After determining the radius of the vortices being produced by the VGs, I recommend that you space the VGs at least two radiuses away from each other. I also recommend that VGs be placed at a 15 degree angle to the flow going over the wing. This will allow the VG to work effectively and produce the largest vortices. If you would like to experiment with different angles, remember to change the Coefficient of Lift (CL) for that angle. 

I also recommend that VGs be placed on the outside 1/3rd to ½ span of the wing. This will make it so that the inboard sections of the wing will stall first while the outboard section continue to have smooth airflow. This will lead to gentle stalls and will help to alleviate tip stalls.

 Equation 3: Radius of vortex produced by VG

6) Making and installing your VGs 

The final step is to make the Vortex Generators and install them on your aircraft. To construct your VGs I recommend using some thin yet sturdy material. I made my VGs using some sturdy poster board. You could also make them from plastic folders or a similar material. If you want your VGs to be removable, I recommend gluing them to some scotch tape and then placing them on your aircraft.

To make installing the VGs easier, I recommend using a simple guide made from a piece of paper to help in aligning your Vortex Generators on the wing. Below I have included some pictures of my installed Vortex Generators to give you an idea of how they could look. 





These equations and tips have various limitations. The equations do not account for the varying velocity profile in the boundary layer when determining the size of the vortices. Some of the things I mentioned above are just things that I have found to work. Thus, if you decide to try making VGs following the steps I mentioned above and they do not work as expected, I recommend experimenting some to see what works for you.

Hope you enjoyed and happy experimenting!


For more discussion check out the RcGroups Thread at: 




sailorJohn on March 14, 2015
Wow! The boy up the street asked me if I had I ideas for a science project , this video , a 12 volt fan, an old wing ,some string and cardboard and he'll be on his way to college. Thanks ever so much I have to try this out my self.
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RotoRex on March 14, 2015
Glad you like it! Have fun experimenting. If you have any questions feel free to ask.
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spastickitten on March 14, 2015
I did mine on winglets and got second place in the county! I used three sheets of paper where as the winner used a computer, an arduino, a light sensor, and a solar panel! I think I won price wise!
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RotoRex on March 15, 2015
Very cool. It is a lot of fun to experiment and see what happens.
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tblake3 on March 18, 2015
A fan will have very turbulent flow coming off it. Putting the air through a screen of 4" long soda straws parallel with the air flow will clean it up.
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jrvalentin62 on March 14, 2015
Very informative. Outstanding share. Thank you.
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RotoRex on March 14, 2015
Thanks for the compliment. You are welcome.
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jamboree1 on March 14, 2015
One of the best and informative articles i seen here yet. The actual video is awesome as it shows exactly what cause and effect is
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RotoRex on March 14, 2015
Thank you very much. It was really fun making the video and seeing the results with the tufts on the wing.
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dharkless on March 16, 2015
Very nice article! I had seen these on 3Ds but did not know how they worked. Now it is pretty clear thanks to your article. Thanks for sharing.
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RotoRex on March 17, 2015
Thanks. Glad you found it informative.
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Skipp2Maloo on March 19, 2015
Fantastic Article! Why just on the tips? Would there be any benefit to putting them the full length of the wing?
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RotoRex on March 19, 2015
Thanks! The VGs are just on the outer 1/2 to 1/3rd span to help get rid of tip stall characteristics. The VGs help that portion of the wing stall later. You could place them the full length of the wing and it will help to increase your stall angle of attack and therefore reduce landing speeds and so on. If you use them on the entire span, you loose the improvement in stall characteristics. It is all dependent on what characteristics you want.
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epic on March 24, 2015
This is awesome! Book marking this article!
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RotoRex on March 24, 2015
Thanks! Glad you like it.
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epic on March 24, 2015
Quick question. If you put these all over the wing would it give it a lower stall speed. But more drag of course?
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RotoRex on March 24, 2015
Yes, placing VGs along the entire span would help to lower stall speeds. At the scale of our model aircraft, yes the drag would be increased because the VGs will extend outside the boundary layer.

Just for the sake of being thorough, VGs can help to reduce drag in some cases. On larger commercial airliners (where the boundary layer is thicker) the VGs sit inside the boundary layer and can actually decrease the growth of the turbulent boundary layer. This can help to decrease the drag on the plane at cruise. This is however very hard to do at the scale of our model aircraft, but it is a fun fact.

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JunnyT on January 22, 2017
Are the height of your VGs really like 3mm?

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RotoRex on January 22, 2017
Plus or minus (more like plus) a few mm. =) They don't need to be very tall.

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d2m1994 on March 19, 2017
I am doing project on applying Vortex generator in SUV car for drag reduction. So, please help me if you have any knowledge of this for car.

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RotoRex on March 21, 2017
The process is fairly similar for a Car. I would think that you still want the VGs to be inside the boundary layer so as to not increase drag of the car. Most VGs I have seen on cars are a sort of triangular wedge shape. But proper implementation of VGs on an SUV should help the air curve around the back more and reduce your overall drag.

It might take a little experimenting but the above equations can help you get to a good starting point. Instead of using the chord length for calculating the boundary layer height you should use the car length. I think that you will also be placing the VGs near the back of the car correct? So then the length you use in the calculation of the boundary layer height would just be the entire length of the car.

Let me know if you have further specific questions that I can help with. Good luck and happy experimenting.
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inayat on May 24, 2017
hello, can anyone tell me how should i determine the number and size of VGs on a fighter aircraft wing at high speed.? thanks
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Quantumracer on July 1, 2018
Great article. When calculating mu, am I using weight (in kilograms) divided by meters per second at stall?
I’m at work (air traffic controller), and I have more questions. I’ll ask later tonight if I can steal the time to list them.
Again, great article! I have a Carbon Cub s+ and just bought the eflight M7. I’m researching VGs because the scale on the Maule VGs looks too small to be effective. I know Josh has one hanging around the shop. Would you mind looking at the VGs and giving me your opinion on their usefulness? I love the sport scale look, but I want the VGs to be effective, not just look pretty! LOL! Function trumps form when you’re risking a stall!

Thanks again!!!

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RotoRex on July 1, 2018
Glad you like the article!

Are you referring to the equation for calculating the Reynolds Number? You can use the value of dynamic viscosity (mu) in the table. You don't need to calculate it. VGs are very useful at improving performance at stall. I recommend placing them on the outboard 1/2 -1/3 of the wing. This will ensure the inner part of the wing stalls first leading to a very predictable and stable stall.

Let me know if that answers your questions and feel free to ask more if you have them.
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gotcox on November 9, 2020
Thanks so much for the great article, but I am a redneck and you lost me at the spacing between vg's. Isn't there a way spacing can be done just like location from leading edge a % of total wing length? If I located them 15% off leading edge and 5% of wing length does that sound in the ball park? Mine is a 63" wing with 9.5" cord. So 1.5" off the leading edge and 3" vg spacing? That seems like a big gap as the whole wing would only take 21 locations.....maybe 2.5% of wing....
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Vortex Generator Design Tips and Experimentation