“Flying Laboratory” Offers Aerospace Engineering Lessons In Real Time
GAINESVILLE — University of Florida aerospace engineering students learning about flight are no longer restricted to textbooks and lectures.
A group of students and faculty members led by Ed Walsh, a UF professor of aerospace engineering, have rigged a full-sized, single-engine airplane with sensors, transmitters and cameras that allow it to relay live video and information to campus. Students can monitor images and data from the plane on a television screen and computer located in UF’s aerospace engineering building, watching as the principles of airplane performance unfold in real time.
“We used to talk to students about what makes an airplane fly,” Walsh said. “We still do that, but now we can also show them what we mean — using a true flying laboratory.”
In what Walsh described as a first system of its kind at a university, he and the students in a “Flight Test Engineering” class installed several different instruments on a four-passenger Cessna 172 as well as ground-based equipment to monitor the systems. The department of aerospace engineering-owned Cessna is used for teaching and research.
One instrument, a tiny probe mounted on a 10-foot rod attached to one of two racks on the underside of the wings, measures the Cessna’s pitch and angle of flight. Another monitors how the stress on the wing strut changes as the plane climbs and descends. A third, a three-axis gyroscope, senses the orientation of the plane in relation to the ground.
Walsh’s class also built mounts for tiny cameras on the plane’s tail and inside the cockpit. Depending on what kind of experiment is planned, the camera can shoot pictures of the pilot’s instrument panel and controls or the exterior of the plane.
A two-way radio allows students to ask the pilot to perform different maneuvers depending on the focus of the lesson. A global positioning system on the plane transmits its exact location to the students.
The instruments and camera relay information and pictures to a small room on the third floor of the aerospace engineering building. There, the data appears on a computer screen, while a television broadcasts the video image. The result is reminiscent of a flight simulator, with a graphic display of the plane’s artificial horizon, for example, oscillating back and forth as the plane rolls. A bar graph displaying the force on the wing strut is one of several other graphics that appear on the computer screen.
Walsh said undergraduates in several different aerospace engineering classes can use the plane to their benefit.
For example, students in an aero structures class learn how to calculate the stress on a plane’s wing struts. With the plane, they can test their calculations to ensure they are correct. Students in the introduction to aerodynamics class, meanwhile, learn that when a plane loses lift, its nose plunges forward in a stall. A video image of air flow over strips of yarn mounted on the wing surface shows why this occurs.
Domenico Ruggiero, a senior in aerospace engineering who helped create the system, said it helps bring aerospace engineering concepts to life.
“When you’re in aerospace engineering classes, you typically get the theory behind the concept but you don’t usually see how the concept applies from a practical standpoint,” said Ruggiero. “The system gives you that practical experience.”
Other universities have collected video and information about flights for classes, but UF is the first university to relay the information in real time to the ground, Walsh said. He added that plans are in the works to connect the system to other universities through the newly launched university high-speed Internet connection, the Internet 2.
Walsh credited Ruggiero, 22, of Lehigh Acres, and Joe Tropeano, also a senior in aerospace engineering, with much of the programming that made the ground station data observation possible.
“The students have been really pivotal on this project, and Domenico and Joe have led the way,” Walsh said.
- Christopher Davis
- Ed Walsh