North American nations mark milestones, plan future collaborations

- Ottawa, Ontario

Ibrahim Yimer, Director General of the NRC's Aerospace Research Centre with Robert Pearce, NASA's Associate Administrator for Aeronautic at the 12th Annual Summit in International Forum for Aviation Research in Warsaw, Poland.

Aeronautical innovators from Canada and the United States this week are commemorating historic milestones, marking recent achievements, and anticipating a continuing partnership aimed at making air travel in the 21st century more sustainable.

This North American attention on aviation is centred within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States and the National Research Council of Canada (NRC)—2 agencies whose research heritage spans more than a century.

Working independently and together, the NRC and NASA have produced technological advancements in aviation that have made flying more capable, more efficient, and—above all—the safest means of public transportation worldwide.

Now, following a series of technical workshops last year, the 2 organizations have identified research topics to pursue that could see the partnership continue by exploring aircraft icing, electric propulsion and other aviation-related technologies.

"The same expertise, creativity and commitment of our teams working together that resulted in amazing advances in the past will continue to help us accomplish our future goals," said Robert Pearce, NASA's associate administrator for aeronautics.

Ibrahim Yimer, the NRC's director general of the Aerospace Research Centre, added his endorsement of the value of the partnership continuing:

"The NRC and NASA have enjoyed a long history of collaborating through our technical experts and complementary scientific facilities. I look forward to more discoveries and success as together we tackle the challenges of our global aviation community."

Recent achievements

The current alliance involving NASA and the NRC was cemented in 2010 with the establishment of a partnership regarding aviation icing research, significantly boosting the quality time the 2-nation team would enjoy together during the following years.

Much of the work revolved around the seemingly strange notion that high concentrations of small ice crystals associated with warm-weather storms at high altitude can be ingested into the core of a hot jet engine, melt, re-freeze, accumulate, and potentially cause the engine to lose power or shut down altogether.

As part of a broader industry/government team, the NRC developed a wing-mounted probe that could accurately measure ice-crystal content under various weather conditions at high altitude, as well as a sensor that sits inside the engine and uses ultrasound to detect ice.

During flight test campaigns led by NASA, the ultrasound sensor showed promising results, while the wing-mounted probe provided information to regulators to help set safety standards for flight procedures and new engines operating in potential ice-crystal formation environments. The probe's technology also has been adapted for use in NASA laboratories.

Another area of research involving ice crystals dealt with how the use of alternate jet fuels in jet engines (in this case a 50/50 blend of biofuel with aviation gas) affects levels of harmful emissions and the formation of contrails from the hot exhaust as it hits subfreezing air.

As part of NASA's Alternative Fuel Effects on Contrails and Cruise Emissions project flight campaign in 2014, the NRC flew its CT-133 research jet behind NASA's DC-8, sampling the exhaust plumes from the NASA aircraft's jet engines. Results showed a decrease in emissions, and later tests confirmed a similar effect on contrail formation—both good news in terms of aviation's contribution to climate change.

In yet another collaboration that is currently under way, NASA provided the NRC with a sensor that is essentially a microphone capable of hearing very-low-frequency sounds a human cannot hear.

The theory is that this sensor can be used to "hear" and track low-frequency sound from turbulence. Potential applications include gaining the ability for an aircraft to avoid clear air turbulence or allowing aircraft to take off or land closer together because they're able to avoid wake turbulence caused by an aircraft ahead of them.

Building on success

Team from the NRC and NASA studying the effects on emissions and contrail formation of burning alternative fuels in jet engines.

With this icing-dominated research serving as a foundation for considering new future collaborations, more than 130 people from the NRC and NASA participated last year in a series of technical workshops from which 64 ideas or topics for new research were proposed. From those, 6 were selected:

  • Finish work already begun on aircraft icing that forms from supercooled large drops of water. "Supercooled" means the drops of water are colder than the freezing point but are still liquid until they strike an airplane and instantly freeze.
  • Use icing test facilities in both nations to verify a process by which a high-lift wing design can be certified as safe for flight under certain icing conditions by using computer analysis of the system instead of by some other method.
  • Examine the possibility of using icephobic materials in aircraft construction. Something is icephobic if its surface has tiny features that can repel or prevent ice formation from taking place.
  • Develop a 5-year plan for collaborating on electrified propulsion as part of each organization's commitment to enabling a more efficient, sustainable form of aviation as a contribution to mitigating climate change.
  • Plan a series of research and testing initiatives to further develop detect-and-avoid technologies that are key to autonomous aircraft operations in support of NASA's Advanced Air Mobility and the NRC's Integrated Aerial Mobility research.
  • Continue to examine ways to integrate all these technical advances as they take flight and potentially require new approaches to air traffic management.

While specific details about the scope of the work and timing are in various stages of development, officials from both nations are anxious to get started with the work.

"I look forward to continuing to build on our cross-border relationship to advance global research in sustainable aviation and tackle climate change".


Added Pearce: "I'm sure this work will present us with challenges to overcome, but I have no doubt doing this research with our partners to the north will be rewarding and important to sustainable aviation. And it will be fun."

A silver anniversary

This renewed commitment from the neighboring nations comes at a time when both the NRC and NASA are celebrating the 75th anniversary of key facilities where extraordinary contributions to aviation have been made.

In Canada, that facility is the NRC's Flight Research Laboratory in Ottawa, home to a stable of aircraft used to support airborne science programs managed by the NRC's Aerospace Research Centre.

"I offer my congratulations and thanks to all who were part of writing the many stories of technical triumph of these facilities during the past 75 years. There's still more to come".


In the United States, it's NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California that is turning 75. It was there that supersonic flight was born, spacecraft returned to Earth on the fabled dry lakebed Armstrong shares with Edwards Air Force Base, and exotic experimental aircraft still take to the sky.

"Research done at these facilities in Ottawa and California has helped advance aviation such that the knowledge we have gained can fill any library—real or virtual—with a treasure of technical reports".


Looking way back

While 75 years is impressive, you would have to look back more than a century to appreciate the full scope of what the storied institutions have accomplished.

NASA began in 1915 as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, while the NRC was established in 1916—both organizations chartered in response to the growing dominance in aviation that Europe enjoyed as the result of the First World War.

Operating independently and together, both nations spurred critical developments in aviation—speed, capability, operational efficiency, safety and more—that benefit everyone around the world.

From Canada these early contributions ranged from inventing an anti-gravity suit so pilots would not black out during high-speed maneuvers, to developing the De Havilland Beaver, one of the most beloved and versatile aircraft still in use today to reach remote, otherwise inaccessible areas.

From the United States came extensive studies of wing and aircraft body shapes that enabled increasingly faster and larger airplanes, more fuel-efficient and quieter jet engines, and other advances touching every corner of aviation.

With the Space Age came the goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth—a goal achieved with the help of Canadian expertise from engineers such as James Chamberlin, Owen Maynard and John Hodge.

Later collaboration on both the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs was most visibly demonstrated with Canada providing the giant robot arms that made possible the construction and continuing operation of the orbital outpost.

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