Since the first sustained piloted flight in 1903, the science and technology of manned flight has grown exponentially, starting with the first university lectures in Paris in 1909, followed by the first US degree program at the University of Michigan in 1914 — the forerunner of today’s Aerospace Department. Today, Michigan Aerospace remains a leader in aerospace research and education, covering an expansive array of topics from unmanned air and space vehicles to commercial airliners. The ever-evolving topics in aerospace encompass the traditional areas of gas dynamics, flight dynamics, control, structures and materials while probing visions of future needs for the aerospace enterprise. Research in aerospace engineering brings our best together to solve tough problems.
Since the late 1950s, lighter and more aerodynamic planes have reduced fuel consumption per passenger per mile by about 30%.
Composite materials research has paved the way for lighter, stronger air vehicles contributing to fuel economy and increased performance. Integrating actuation and sensing materials into composite materials allows the formation of smart and multifunctional structures capable of reducing weight and increasing performance of all aerospace vehicles and spins off nicely into a host of other engineering marvels.
Often, airplanes are optimized in cycles, first looking at the structure of the plane, the materials, strength and weight, and then making that design aerodynamic. The process continues, optimizing for structure and aerodynamics in turn. But better planes can be designed by taking both into account simultaneously.
Human flight bears little resemblance to flight in nature and we are only beginning to understand the subtleties of how flapping wings produce the precise control that hummingbirds and insects enjoy. Aerospace researchers are unlocking the secrets of bird and insect motion through experiments and computer modeling.
Also since the late 1950s, more efficient engine designs have cut fuel consumption per passenger per mile by about half. As biofuels now make up about 10% of automotive gasoline, they are also beginning to make their way into jet fuel. Researchers in Aerospace are studying how the new fuel mix changes combustion in jet engines.
Other research studies the engines of a new class of vehicles that can exceed the speed of sound by a factor of five or more, known as scramjets. With air entering the engine at such high speeds, the combustion process has little more than a millisecond to occur before the fuel is blown out again. The turbulence can also temporarily block fresh air from coming into the engine, stopping combustion and thrust. Yet if engineers can overcome these and other obstacles, the US could have a vehicle that can be anywhere in the world inside two hours.
This work relates to Gas Dynamics.
Some engines designed in Aerospace Engineering go beyond the atmosphere. Thrusters that use plasma, a gas containing electrons and ions, can accelerate spacecraft very efficiently. First, these thrusters ionize a gas. Then, electric or magnetic fields push the charged particles out through a nozzle, accelerating the spacecraft in the opposite direction. Our faculty study thrusters great and small, from computer-chip-sized thrusters on up to designs that could drive humans across the solar system. UM Professor James Cutler is working on a revolutionary new technology — developing new plasma thrusters to propel small satellites, called CubeSats, into deep space.
Space thrusters fall under Gas Dynamics and Space Systems.
Sensors can give pilots additional information so that they can fly more safely and efficiently, and they can also feed into control systems so that vehicles can pilot themselves.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, known colloquially as drones, have a variety of possibilities outside the military — from traffic reporting to search-and-rescue missions. Aerospace research is developing vehicles with the ability to fly autonomously and in flocks to maximize the scientific understanding of things such as crop growth, forest fires and general land and water management.
Commercial air travel is now so safe that a passenger’s risk of dying in a crash is just one in 45 million flights. But when a catastrophic mishap occurs, such as engine failure or damage to the plane’s structure, pilots have limited time and information to decide what action is most likely to save the lives of the passengers. Aerospace engineers are trying to develop an emergency co-pilot of sorts, one that can run through the options and outcomes to suggest the best way to maintain control of the plane and get it on the ground safely.
Satellites in space communicate with Earth intermittently, so they need robust autonomous control systems to handle most of their operations from maintaining their positions and internal environments to taking measurements and sending data to Earth.
These efforts are examples of flight Dynamics and Controls research.
Aerodynamics is one of the last frontiers in reducing fuel consumption in ground vehicles like cars and trucks. The dominant factor in fuel economy for gas-powered vehicles traveling over 50 mph is aerodynamics, and this speed is even lower for electric cars. We are currently expanding our aerodynamics research into this area.
Autonomous operation, which depends closely on sensors and actuators, is necessary for space vehicles, but it also improves safety in aircraft by simplifying the pilot’s job. The same technology can be used to improve safety of ground vehicles, through driver assistance systems or even fully autonomous, driverless vehicles.
Aerospace research and education provide constant spin-offs into medicine. The signal processing techniques developed for aerospace applications are now used to analyze medical data, energy harvesting developed for running aircraft sensors could also power pacemakers, and material advances for aerospace structures could repair heart valves.
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