Research makes sure you have a safe flight

Research makes sure you have a safe flight

A major Canadian aircraft manufacturer is partnering with researchers at the University of New Brunswick to revolutionize their industry
November 17, 2014

John Spray couldn’t have anticipated how his expertise in crater formation would one day help airline companies such as Bombardier. Spray, Director of the Planetary and Space Science Centre at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), spent much of his early career as a geologist, researching the subterranean aftermath of asteroid impacts. These collisions not only wipe out much of the surrounding flora and fauna, they also change the soil and stone of the Earth’s crust. “We were doing forensics,” says Spray. “We wanted to see what kinds of new, tough materials are formed after an impact and how we can use that knowledge to develop new man-made materials.”

WATCH: John Spray describes his research, from asteroids to flocks of birds

The question of how materials, be they rock, metal or man-made, become more resilient after a massive collision led Spray to open the High-speed Impact Research and Technology Facility at UNB.

In his ballistics facility, Spray and his team live out the dream of every eight-year-old boy: shoot things out of giant cannons and see what happens. One of his signature pieces of equipment is a Foreign Object Damage Gun which launches objects weighing two to four kilograms (think a hearty roast chicken for Sunday supper) to subsonic speeds of approximately 250 metres per second at a metal target.  After the splatter, Spray uses high precision sensors and computer technology, much of which was funded by the CFI, to measure the most minute modifications to targeted materials: the warps, weaknesses and sometimes strengths that occur after impact.

READ: Heavy hitters

UNB researchers are testing the limits of materials to protect against big impacts.

No wonder, then, that an airline company such as Bombardier came knocking. Spray developed a research partnership with John Coll, an aeronautical engineer at Bombardier Aerospace based in Toronto who for several years was responsible for flight design and certification of planes such as the Q400, Global Express and Learjet’s 40 and 45. Coll and his colleagues sought Spray’s ballistics expertise and equipment to refine computer simulations of bird strikes and then use this information to test and develop lighter, stronger and more efficient materials for the nose, wings, windshield, turbine and tail of a plane — those areas where birds are most likely to strike.

The data that has emerged from Spray’s partnership with Bombardier is helping the airline company design planes that can withstand the relatively rare occasions when a flock of birds hits an airplane as it takes off or lands. “I don’t think people need to be worried,” says Spray when reflecting on instances such as when US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of Canada geese and was forced to land in the Hudson River off midtown Manhattan in 2009. “So long as there is good engineering and an airplane is well designed, such events shouldn’t be common.”

Spray says his long-term objective is to help Bombardier develop the next generation of aircraft materials that are stronger, lighter and safer. “That’s where we want to go,” he says. “I want to be pushing the limits and getting revolutionary new ideas and materials out.”

READ: Mission to Mars

Canadian researchers, including UNB’s John Spray, are helping determine whether life once existed on the red planet.