NRC Canada bridges the gap

 - July 19, 2010, 1:37 AM

The National Research Council Canada Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC Aerospace) generally doesn’t engage in the sort of fundamental research commonly done at the university level. Instead, it occupies a sort of a middle ground between academia and industry, filling an innovation gap as wide as three technology readiness levels (TRLs). As a result, it engages primarily in what Dr. Ibrahim Yimer calls mission-oriented research. “The goal is always [keeping] the end user in mind, even if we do innovative type research,” he said.

For example, NRC Aerospace (Hall 4 Stand C19c) works with a partnership between Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce called Glacier LLC on a large-engine test facility in Thompson, Manitoba, set to open this autumn. NRC’s role centers on icing research at the facility, where it installed an icing mast capable of producing a cloud of supercooled liquid droplets. The facility carries the capacity to hold engines producing up to 150,000 pounds of thrust.

Other areas in which NRC Aerospace specializes include advanced materials and structures, propulsion, aerodynamics, advanced manufacturing and avionics/flight operations. Much of its research centers on conductive bonding technologies for composites. “One of the downsides of composites is that they’re not conductive,” said Yimer. “So how do you make them conductive so they’ll act more like aluminum during lightning strikes, for example.”

In aerodynamics, perhaps NRC Aerospace’s most remarkable studies involve what Yimer called “morphing-wing technology.” By actively measuring the boundary layer separation on the surface of the wing, small hydraulic actuators and sensors on the skin automatically modify its geometry so that it can delay separation and allow the laminar boundary layer–rather than turbulence–to cover more of the airfoil, explained Yimer.

In the field of propulsion, the NRC performs studies on the performance of ice crystals on engines. “Even the FAA has come to tell us that we’ve got the worldwide lead on that,” said Yimer. One major area of study involves the detection of ice crystals in the atmosphere and NRC researchers have developed an isokinetic probe that can measure total water content when flying at high altitude through clouds with ice crystals. Claimed to be the only fully functioning device of its kind in the world, the probe is planned for flight testing next year.

NRC is also studying ice accretion and shedding inside aircraft engines. “On the inside of the engine, where it’s warm, people don’t think that ice crystals can be formed,” said Yimer, “but they do and they do so very quickly to the point where you accumulate enough to choke the engine.”

In the field of avionics and flight operations, the NRC works on a program called high altitude aircraft research capability (HAARC), for which it placed special instruments on a Lockheed T-33 jet trainer to study turbulence and aircraft emissions at altitudes up to 40,000 feet. The HAARC also allows the T-33 to perform wake vortex research and measure how the wake interacts with aircraft performance.

The NRC Aerospace research fleet comprises three helicopters: a Bell 412 HP, a Bell 205A and a Bell 206; and six fixed-wing aircraft: the T-33, a Falcon 20, a Convair 580, a de Havilland Twin Otter, a Harvard Mark IV trainer and the newest addition, an Extra 300 aerobatic aircraft.

The Bell 412 HP is undergoing an engine modification by  Calgary-based Eagle Copters, contracted to replace the 412 HP’s engines with a Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6T-9 Twin-Pac. “NRC gets new engines,” said NRC director Stewart Baillie, “while Eagle Copters will acquire a new service it can offer to Bell 412 operators around the globe.” Transport Canada is expected to award Eagle supplemental type certificate approval for the modification after it is completed on the NRC 412.

NRC Aerospace also provides highly specialized facilities and equipment, including eight wind tunnels, the largest of which measures 30 feet by 30 feet. Employing more than 350 full-time staff, the institute also houses about 100 guest workers, students and representatives from industry partners “at any moment,” said Yimer.

The group’s holdings also include a full-scale structural test rig large enough to accommodate an F-18 wing for static and dynamic loading; engine and combustion test cells large enough to house engines that produce up to 25,000 pounds of thrust; material characterization and testing equipment; and acoustic reverberant chambers capable of holding a full-scale satellite. The institute also maintains a machine capable of manufacturing about 30-foot-long composite fuselage segments with a diameter of a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320. NRC Aerospace has also used the machine to make a full-scale helicopter tail boom.