Author Archives: Bianca Van der Watt

  1. Engineers Fly The First-Ever Aircraft With No Moving Parts

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    Engineers fly the first-ever aircraft with no moving parts using “ionic wind”

    Airplanes today are one of the most well-engineered things, and they need to be if we want them to be safe. That said, they have too many moving parts, like turbine blades and propellers, that only add to the complexity and therefore, make them less reliable. Thankfully, there is a new advancement in this field – airplanes with no moving parts that use ionic wind as propulsion.

    The concept plane was built by MIT engineers with Steven Barrett, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, at the helm of the team. “This is the first-ever sustained flight of a plane with no moving parts in the propulsion system,” says Barrett, adding that his inspiration for this aircraft comes from “Star Trek”, his favorite movie and TV series.

    Even the design of the aircraft was under the influence of the ionic propulsion system in “Star Trek”, or as Barrett puts it “in the long-term future, planes shouldn’t have propellers and turbines, they should be more like the shuttles in ‘Star Trek,’ that have just a blue glow and silently glide.”

    The “ionic wind” that this concept aircraft uses is known in physics as electro-aerodynamic thrust and it is created when a current passes between a thick and thin electrode, or in this case thick and thin wires that run across. Right now, even at 40,000 volts, this thrust is only capable of lifting a small aircraft. More precisely, the concept airplane has a 5-meter wingspan and weighs only 5 pounds, near to that of camera drones. For electricity, the team uses lithium-polymer batteries, which are the go-to choice for electric vehicles nowadays.

    Compared to any other propulsion systems, “ionic wind” should be much more reliable, but also almost silent. This may make a big difference to passengers in the plane, but also to other flying objects, like drones for example. Right now, if you record video with sound with a drone, the only thing you’ll hear will be the sound of the propellers.

    The ionic aircraft is only a proof of concept right now – it flew only 60 meters in a test flight across the gymnasium in duPont Athletic Center. However, it repeated the same feat 10 times without any issue, which encouraged the MIT engineers to continue to improve the design and increase the efficiency of the aircraft.

  2. Self-Foldable Drones to Assist on Rescue Missions

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    Self-Foldable Drones

    Image courtesy University of Zurich

    Rescuers have an extremely hard time getting to the victims of natural disasters. New research from the team at the University of Zurich tackles this very problem. They created a drone that retracts its propellers during a flight to get into tight spaces.

    How Foldable Drones Work

    Although technology and safety practices are improving, there are still instances where people have to send machines to do the work for them. For example, it is almost impossible for humans to inspect the aftermath of earthquakes or fires because of the various safety hazards.

    A team of researchers from the Robotics and Perception Group at the University of Zurich and the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL made a drone that can perfectly pass through narrow cracks in the wall or between bars. The new drone can look for those trapped inside the damaged buildings or under a pile of debris and lead the rescue team towards them.

    During the flight, the flying robot can squeeze its propellers to go through gaps and then return back to its previous shape. Plus, it can hold other objects while flying.

    Davide Falanga, the paper’s author and a researcher at the University of Zurich said in a statement, “Our solution is quite simple from a mechanical point of view, but it is very versatile and very autonomous, with onboard perception and control systems.” The morphing drone can work quite well in small spaces while guaranteeing a stable flight. In case of approaching to tiny passages, it transforms into an “H”, an “O” or a “T” shape.

    The team worked closely to create quadrotor with four propellers with independent rotation. Quadrotor’s propellers are mounted on flexible arms that fold around the main frame.

    Foldable Drones in the Future

    The high autonomy of the new drones makes way for successful rescue missions in the future. However, “the ultimate goal is to give the drone a high-level instruction how to enter that building, inspect every room and come back and let it work out for itself,” says Falanga.

  3. The Avalon 2019 Innovation Award Goes to a Cutting Tool

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    The Avalon 2019 Innovation Award Goes to a Cutting Tool

    Jimmy Toton inspects a 3D printed steel milling cutter. Credit: RMIT University

    Jimmy Toton, a Ph.D. candidate at the RMIT University in Melbourne, has won this year’s “Young Defence Innovator Award” along with the $15000 money prize that accompanies it. The young engineer has presented a novel 3-D printed steel cutting tool that convinced the judges of its performance by cutting through titanium alloys in a manner that is in many cases considered to be better than the conventional tools used in the field right now. This is very important because many industries, the Defence sector, and companies that develop aerospace solutions all use superalloys and tough metals that are extremely resistive to cutting.

    Toton’s 3-D printed milling cutter not only makes the cutting of strong alloys easier and quicker, but it’s also much cheaper to make compared to the cost of conventional tools. In machining, improving productivity while reducing the cost is all one can ask for, so the tool is apparently ready for widespread adoption. This groundbreaking milling cutter is made by using the LMD (Laser Metal Deposition) technology which allows for unprecedented levels of precision in the printing process. Layer by layer, metal powder particles are solidified thanks to the energy of a highly-targeted laser beam, resulting in a strong and reliable cutting tool that can have complex geometry.

    Of course, mill cutting tools are subject to enormous forces, and even the slightest material defects or tiny cracks would end up in the quick failure of the cutter. Toton had to go through a series of optimizations in the printing process, based on meticulous quality assurance methods and exhaustive testing. Winning the award has definitely justified his great efforts, but this is only the beginning of the road. This novel cutting tool opens up new possibilities in manufacturing, and it’s so significant that attendees of the event stated that those who have high manufacturing costs are obliged to use this tool to remain competitive. A Sutton Tools representative has also added that Toton’s project has “industry-level” significance. “This project exemplifies the ethos of capability-building through industrial applied research, rather than just focusing on excellent research for its own sake.”

  4. Boeing Awarded $43 Million to Develop an Autonomous Submerging Watercraft

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    Boeing to Develop an Autonomous Submerging Watercraft

    Echo Voyager, photo by Boeing

    Weapon systems never seize to evolve into smarter, more effective, and more sophisticated marvels of engineering. In the recent years, the focus has shifted on autonomously flying drones and augmented reality suites, but that’s not all of it. The U.S. Navy is reportedly developing a pioneering watercraft that will be able to get submerged, opening up a whole host of new utilization opportunities that make America’s foes nervous. According to revelations made by Captain Pete Small, who also happens to be the Naval Sea Systems Command program manager for unmanned maritime systems, the U.S. Navy is working in collaboration with Boeing on a $43 million program that aims at the development of a highly versatile, weapon-equipped underwater submerging unmanned vehicle (UUV).

    This new watercraft will be completely autonomous, will feature high-precision navigation, and will be able to endure damage from other weapon systems as well as the environment of course. The program’s first phase will yield four UUVs of this type, and depending on the first operational results; it will get renewed and extended. From the operational value perspective, the new watercrafts will be able to travel afar, deploy sensors in strategic positions, or even deploy other smaller UUVs that are specialized in surveillance and intelligence data collection. The Navy is expected to treat these new UUVs like small submarines, as they will be deployable from a ship’s well deck or the shore. With a diameter of about 7 feet (about two meters), those watercrafts will undoubtedly be very versatile in all kinds of operations.

    Boeing will carry out the hull, propulsion, and instrumentation design, as they know how to make them well-performing while keeping the costs low. They have already materialized quite a few submersible vehicles for the U.S. Navy in the recent past, and the experience that they have gathered from the research and development process is both invaluable and unique at a global scale.

  5. Titanium Aluminides and Their Importance in Efficient Aerospace Engines

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    Plane wing by bottlein via

    Electric airplanes really sound exotic and forward-thinking, but we’re far from a commercial airplane with this kind of propulsion. The problem is batteries – they are very, very heavy for an airplane. That’s why focusing on improving the existing technologies for the reduction of the carbon footprint of airplanes has become even more important in the past decade.

    This is specifically true for the engines used in the aerospace industry. In order to extract more power with less fuel, engineers design modern engines to work on a lean mixture, or in other words, with more air and less fuel. The problem is, lean-burn engines work at even higher temperatures, which puts a lot of strain on the materials. Remember – those materials not only need to sustain very high temperatures, but they should also be lighter than before, as heavier materials will negate the improvements made by the lean-burn design.

    Titanium Aluminides are part of the heat-resistant superalloys family and are widely used in modern airplane engines. These materials were first used in the Formula 1 race cars and are now an integral part of the aerospace industry. More precisely, they are used for turbine and compressor blades, where the lower weight is even more important. Compared to the previously used nickel alloys, Titanium Aluminides have the same strength and corrosion resistance, and only half the weight.

    Some of the downsides of Titanium Aluminides are the low ductility, which can be mitigated by careful design with the Design for Manufacturability principles and precise machining. This lengthens the production time of Titanium Aluminide parts, especially given the tight tolerances in the aerospace industry.

    Still, Titanium Aluminide materials are one of the most important parts of the eco-friendly airplanes we’ve seen recently and the higher production costs are counteracted by the lower fuel costs in the long run. The continued improvements made to manufacturing processes will only increase the use of Titanium Aluminides and strengthen their place in the aerospace industry for the years to come.