The Next Frontier
One of the best things about Ian Fleming’s iconic fictional British Secret Service agent James Bond is the techno whizzes at “Q branch” who never fail to present our hero with the latest gizmo to save his bacon.
By Matt Nicholls
It’s a fantasyland, yes – and an entertaining one to boot – but when one visits the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) site in Ottawa, it’s hard not to feel of a kind of “Bond-like” presence here. Home to its own cutting edge technology and forward-thinking research and development projects, the NRC comes up with technologies and concepts that have a profound effect on the lives of helicopter and fixed wing pilots everywhere – and many others touched by aviation and aerospace. No, we’re not talking tools to fend off Russian Secret Service agents. But the R&D carried out at this facility certainly merits a high place on the “cool factor” dial.
“I think that’s an accurate statement with things we are working on,” notes the NRC’s Dr. Gregory Craig. “We try to cover off the aviation envelope as best we can with the resources we have, but we certainly don’t have it completely covered.” Such a premise would be a tall order indeed, but NRC researchers and scientists are making headway on a number of projects aimed at improving the lives of passengers and pilots everywhere.
Founded in 1916 under the pressure brought on by the First World War to advise government on matters of science and industrial research, the National Research Council of Canada is the nation’s primary national research and technology (RTO) organization. Headquartered in Ottawa with some 3,650 employees nationwide, the NRC runs more than 40 programs meant to create, acquire and promote the application of scientific and engineering knowledge to meet Canadian needs for economic, regional and social development, according to its official mandate. Programs run the gamut across a broad range of industries including mining, agriculture, energy development, oil and gas, automotive, construction and, of course, aviation and aerospace.
From this perspective, the NRC works with major OEMs and other aviation and aerospace companies to design new technologies and services that will help transform the industry. The NRC has – according to its website – fees-for-service testing at its established flight testing centre, decades of experience, a strong talent base of highly-qualified aviation personnel and pilots, and world-class expertise to support industry in bringing new technologies to market more rapidly while meeting forthcoming regulatory and environmental standards.
The NRC supports Canadian avionics manufacturers on advanced technologies that will be used in next generation aircraft and modern helicopter cockpits. Side-arm controllers, programmable head down displays, speech I/O and helmet-mounted displays are some of the technologies that have been tested and perfected in its airborne simulator. It also boasts a fleet of nine aircraft used for a variety of tests, research, training and product development (see “Skyhawks,” pg 27).
So, how does the organization go about identifying and selecting projects to work on? “Some of it is trends, making sure you are on the leading edge of them,” Craig said. “But a lot of it is going to conferences, seeing what the research areas are and making links. It’s finding out what we can do together, what we might be able to offer a specific company, see what are our capabilities are.”
And while the five pilots blessed to be with NRC are rarely at a loss in terms of variety in flight assignments – “we ask them to do some reasonably extreme stuff,” Craig said – there is some comfort in knowing that the testing, experiments and human factors analysis being executed all help in raising standards for the industry as a whole.
“There is a lot of variety for sure,” Craig said. “I was basically at a training course and the other pilots would sit around, and one said I did this route and the other said he did that route, and the NRC guy piped up and said, let’s see, I have flown over hurricanes, I did greenhouse gas emissions, I did a test pilot’s school, plus I did some aerobatic training on the fixed wing side. It is not too hard to find pilots.”
Shake it Up
Not every project the NRC is involved with is carried out by the flight crew. In many cases, the pilots are firmly under the microscope. One of the more intriguing projects that NRC engineering and human factors assessment teams are working on involves its new Human Vibration lab meant to analyze the effect vibration has on pilots in flight.
To help reduce these effects, the NRC has developed a vibration mitigating seat cushion with energy-absorbing materials. The new cushions are designed to reduce the health and safety risks associated with whole-body vibration on helicopters. The success of this technology stems from a project funded by the Directorate of Technical Airworthiness and Engineering Support of the Department of National Defence (DND-DTAES).
The technology was validated and advanced through mech-anical shaker tests using NRC’s new human-rated shaker device. Its performance was verified during flight tests on the NRC Bell 412 helicopter at the NRC’s Ottawa-based facility. The new cushion integrates traditional foam with energy-absorbing engineered materials. Its hexagonal cell pattern encompasses interconnected air vents to dissipate vibration energy while maintaining the airworthiness and crashworthiness requirements of aircraft seats.
“We had a look at a variety of cushions and came up with a different stacking process and different materials that absorb vibration and energy,” notes Dr. Viresh Wickramasinghe, group leader and senior research officer of aeroacoustics and structural dynamics, and aerospace with the NRC. “This is a way to mitigate vibration from the floor to the seat and right to the pilot.”
The first vibration cushion developed is currently being used by the Canadian Department of National Defense on the CF-146 Griffon. It is designed to reduce fatigue, reduce chronic back pain and neck strain, improve situational awareness, and, in extreme cases, prevent disability.
“We were able to test this with the human rated shaker to ensure that our proposal works with the new seat design,” Wickramasinghe said. “And the other process is to make sure that we pick the right cushion configuration for a particular application. So, the weight of the armoured seat configuration is much higher. The optimization of the material depends on the weight as well.”
The cushions being designed for civilian use are much different than the military version, Wickramasinghe notes. For this application, the NRC has licensed the design out to Hawkesbury, Ont.-based DART Aerospace. The firm is in line to commercialize and market the product.
Major Matthew Maxwell, team leader of human factors and engineering/human system integration at DND-DTAES, is impressed with the military version of the cushion. He maintains that the NRC’s new vibration research and technological advancements will help lead to real change in understanding the long-term health risks of vibration on pilots. “We have been working with NRC in this area for over a decade and we knew they would be the right partner for this research and technology development project.”
The first part of the cushion project demanded quite a bit of flight-testing. The identification of specific characteristics revealed that vibration was emitted at a low frequency – and where the vibration was located as the energy passes through the seat from the body to the head as opposed to the other frequencies where the human body acts as an attenuator.
“There were a number of steps that were taken to recognize that we have a concern here and then we went searching for a solution that was relatively adaptable as a retrofit,” Wickramasinghe said. “It took a number of years, but the actual development once we identified a potential solution material that worked well . . . it was about two years at that point. But there was obviously some work up front in identifying the problem itself.”
Rethinking the airport experience
Finding a better solution to the various nuances of passenger travel is another NRC project in the works. With its new Cabin Comfort and Environment Research (CCER) facility – currently being constructed with the hopes of being fully functional by 2017 – the NRC will work with airlines, OEMs and air framers to find ways to optimize the overall passenger experience not only at the terminal, but also on-board the aircraft. Designated “passengers” will be exposed to a terminal and aircraft boarding experience, complete with accurate representations of both the actual facility and various aircraft.
The CCER plans will focus on the development of tools that will optimize passenger comfort. The centre will allow industry partners to explore cabin arrangements to reduce operating costs while maximizing operators’ revenues. The facility will also include vibration simulation to create vibration profiles for helicopter and turboprop platforms.
“This project has two parts. We are currently working out the issues of the construction of the building and the other is developing the various labs,” notes Dr. Anant Grewal, program lead of working and travelling on aircraft. “We essentially have four laboratories in the facility. We have the processing area, which looks at the human factors details. We will be working with the airlines and crew using this facility; it is an entire processing area. We bring the subjects in, and when we do any type of work with the subjects, we have to make sure we get the appropriate approvals.”
“We can use a third-party recruiting service to find people in Ottawa and surrounding areas to serve as passengers for simulated flights,” mentions Dr. Paul Lebbin, research council officer, intelligent building operations at the NRC. “It really depends on the project we are working on.
“After they give their consent, the ‘passengers’ are exposed to the first area, which is set up as a gate. So, you go in, you check in. Once you are checked in, you have a carry on luggage area and depending on the project – let’s say it is a full project – we will put them in a body scanner that will take a 3D image and determine the lengths and sizes of a particular individual. And in the cabin, in economy class, it is critical to determine the size of that person to help understand their physiological and subjective response to the cabin. So we can capture that as well.”
The CCER will also have physiology testing rooms to carefully analyze the passenger experience from a physicologial point of view – heart rate monitoring etc. An area designated for the actual aircraft seating will also be available to accommodate a broad range of aircraft designs, which can constantly change – enough room to replicate a 777 cabin.
“I was the first hired at NRC to lead the aircraft cabin environment technologies initiative,” Lebbin said. “As part of this initiative, we went out to see if there was an industry draw for this type of work. We realized we already have the competencies in house, we have a strong human factors team in house, but there are others involved in in-house flight and entertainment, human interaction, thermal comfort etc. We have lighting specialists, all under one roof, but what we lacked was a facility for us to control the different variables so we can evaluate different technologies and services and how that impacts master comfort. We are also looking at how we can reduce crew workload serving those customers.”
Grewal notes that the NRC has identified a gap between product development and actually implementing that product to the airlines. “There is a big risk for the airlines to incorporate new technologies aboard the aircraft because you have to go through an expensive certification process, maybe do a trial run before you go out etc.,” he said. “This averts that situation. You are doing it on the ground, you don’t have to get certification . . . we are trying to replicate the same travel experience, going from the gate to the aircraft and back, so we replicate the same noise, the same environment that you will see on the actual aircraft.”
Looking for ways to solve problems in a complex environment through science, creativity and ingenuity. No, it’s not fending off Russian spies and saving Her Majesty from the dastardly grip of the evildoers. But at NRC’s aviation and aerospace facilities in the Nation’s Capital, scientists and R&D experts like Wickramasinghe and Grewal – and their teams – are well on their way to solving critical issues both at the gates and in Canadian skies. “Q branch” eat your hearts out.
A closer look at the NRC’s impressive fleet of rotary-wing aircraft
Bell 412 (4_DOF airborne simulator) The NRC’s Bell 412 Advanced Systems Research Aircraft (ASRA) is configured as a 4-DOF simulator for research in airborne simulation, handling qualities, advanced controls, active controls, pilot-vehicle interfaces and aircraft systems. The aircraft also serves to test advanced pilot-vehicle interfaces such as smart displays, helmet-mounted displays, synthetic vision systems, integrated hand controllers and direct voice input.
Bell 205 (4-DOF airborne simulator) The highly-modified fly-by-wire Bell 2015A is also configured for research simulation. The Bell 205 Airborne Simulator allows researchers to investigate the impact on situational awareness, safety and mission performance of advanced pilot-vehicle interfaces such as smart displays, helmet-mounted displays, synthetic vision systems, integrated hand controllers and direct voice input.
Bell 206 (single engine helicopter) The Bell 206B is a single-engine, teetering rotor, light-utility helicopter with dual flight controls and provisions for two research crews in the back seat, including an instrumented flight test engineering station. The aircraft also plays a key role in human factors research in the evaluation of new cockpit technologies, including helmet mounted displays and NVGs
In addition to the rotary-wing assets, the NRC has fixed wing aircraft used for a variety of other missions, including a Convair 580, Extra 300L, Falcon 20, Harvard, Twin Otter and T-33.