Taking flight with technology for tomorrow

Getty Images/itsskin

Getty Images/itsskin

To celebrate Research Week 2018, UQ is proud to share how UQ research is creating change, right across the world, every day.

Find out how our researchers are collaborating with research partners both in Australia and abroad to develop aerospace technology for tomorrow.

As a university in the world’s top 50, UQ has a long history of collaborating with government and business partners to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

Our longstanding partnerships with industry giants like Boeing and Qantas are no exception, allowing UQ research to reach new heights and develop technologies that are set to transform the global aviation industry.

From research into unmanned aircraft and sustainable fuel, to drones and scramjets, UQ researchers are proving the sky’s no longer the limit on what our research can achieve, with applications for space and beyond.

And our researchers are set to make even greater advances in aerospace with the establishment of the Boeing Research and Technology Australia Centre at UQ’s St Lucia campus.

Bringing together Boeing and UQ researchers, this mutually beneficial centre marks the first time in the Asia-Pacific region that Boeing has co-located its research within a university, showing the high esteem in which UQ’s staff, students and graduates are held within the industry.

Covering diverse research fields including engineering, human movements, neuroscience, chemistry, physics and psychology, the centre will provide even more opportunities for collaboration, with the innovations and expertise generated set to yield important benefits for society globally.

And Boeing is just one of the many partners UQ is working with to see our research take flight…

We have lift-off!

Since the launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957, there has been a global fascination in flight and space exploration, particularly hypersonic flight. At UQ’s Centre for Hypersonics, researchers have been conducting research for more than 20 years into all aspects of hypersonic flight.

School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering researcher and Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion Professor Michael Smart leads UQ's research into scramjet technology, a sustainable engine alternative to rockets.

A scramjet is a high-speed plane with air-breathing engines able to fly long distances across the Earth very quickly, making it lighter and more fuel-efficient.

“A scramjet is like a plane. When it has accelerated to its maximum velocity, the upper-stage rocket carrying the satellite blasts off its back, and the scramjet simply turns around and flies back to base. We can then re-fuel and launch it again,” says Professor Smart.

Professor Smart and his team have developed scramjet engines to the point where they can be used in a space-launch system.

Professor Smart and the Centre are also investigating the means of flying at hypersonic speed – or travelling faster than five times the speed of sound. This research is being undertaken in collaboration with the Defence Science and Technology Group of Australia, the US Air Force Research Laboratory, and Boeing as part of the HiFiRE (Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation) Program.

In May 2016, the program successfully launched a hypersonic test rocket from the Woomera Test Range in South Australia, hitting Mach 7.5 (9200km/h) and reaching a height of 278 kilometres above Earth.

The potential of hypersonic flight can provide great social and economic benefits, as well as revolutionising global air travel. Professor Smart and his team are currently looking into creating an aircraft that combines scramjet technology with a jet engine, to be used commercially.

“Flying people internationally at hypersonic speed requires the combination of a scramjet with a jet engine in some way. The aircraft could take off with a jet engine and then switch over to a scramjet engine, but that’s actually more complicated than the space application.”

Learn more about Professor Smart’s research in hypersonic flight on UQ Research Impact.

Carinata crops growing at UQ Gatton

Carinata crops growing at UQ Gatton

Carinata flowering in the field

Carinata flowering in the field

Flying high with Australia's first aviation biofuel seed crop

In January 2018, Australian airline Qantas piloted the world’s first biofuel flight between the United States and Australia, with UQ researchers helping to provide the fuel.

The historic trans-Pacific 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne operated with approximately 24,000kg of blended biofuel, saving 18,000kg in carbon emissions.

The plane was powered by Brassica carinata (carinata), a non-food, industrial type of mustard seed – fields of which are being trialled at UQ Gatton.

Faculty of Science researcher Dr Anthony van Herwaarden led the seed crop trials in collaboration with Agrisoma BioSciences, a Canadian based agricultural-technology company that has partnered with Qantas.

According to data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), Australia consumes approximately 125,000 barrels of jet fuel each day. Qantas has also reported that jet fuel accounts for up to 95 per cent of emissions related to flying.

Across its lifecycle, using carinata-derived biofuel can reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared to traditional jet fuel.

As a ‘drop-in’ crop, it requires no specialised production or processing techniques. Carinata is also water efficient and field trials have demonstrated it should do very well in the Australian climate.

The Australian field trials were conducted with UQ’s Dr Christopher Lambrides, University of Melbourne Associate Professor Phillip Salisbury and Trent Potter of Yeruga Crop Research.

Qantas and Agrisoma will work with Australian farmers to grow the country’s first commercial aviation biofuel seed crop in the near future.

Read more about this groundbreaking research on UQ News.

Bio-inspired collision avoidance

After 100 years of manned aviation, unmanned aircraft are being introduced into the national airspace system. However, when you remove the pilot, you also remove the ability to see and avoid other aircraft.

Just as the Wright Brothers did before him, Professorial Research Fellow Professor Mandyam Srinivasan, Head of the Neuroscience of Vision and Aerial Robotics laboratory at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), is drawing inspiration from nature to solve these challenges. 

“I should invent a new term to describe what we do. It is not quite biomimicry because we are not slavishly copying everything an insect or a bird does, or copying the way they are built in fine detail. We absorb the general principles of these animals’ systems and then realise them using off-the-shelf equipment. We are ‘bio-inspired’.”
– Professor Srinivasan

While it can be assumed that birds have established basic rules and strategies to minimise their risk of collision, surprisingly little is known about how they do it. This is where Professor Srinivasan focuses his work, which is funded by the Australian Research Council and Boeing, with the Queensland University of Technology as a co-investigator.

In his most recent series of experiments, Professor Srinivasan’s laboratory released pairs of budgerigars from opposite sides of a flight tunnel to discover the strategies they might use to avoid colliding.

Low-level vision and navigation research continue to play a role in building intelligent, unmanned aircraft that can be used for reconnaissance, surveillance and planetary exploration.

"More and more aircraft are populating our airspace and, with improvements in unmanned and autonomous technology, there will be an increase in the number of unmanned aircraft sharing the airspace. These aircraft are going to have to act independently of each other and come to a mutually compatible solution when aircraft confront each other.”
– Professor Srinivasan

Professor Srinivasan’s team are now looking at how birds navigate space in detail – including the wing kinematics of collision avoidance, and testing their data on a mechanical bird.

Pictured: the Boeing research centre at UQ.

Learn more about Professor Srinivasan's nature-inspired navigation study on UQ Research Impact.

UQ research into creating smaller, safer, cheaper and more energy-efficient drones is making an impact to agricultural industries.

UQ research into creating smaller, safer, cheaper and more energy-efficient drones is making an impact to agricultural industries.

Just go with the flow

Though drone technology is a relatively recent development in aviation, these unmanned aerial vehicles have already made great impact to areas of industry, agriculture and more. However, like any other aircraft, drones are susceptible to changing flight conditions.

Current drone technology does not allow them to operate safely in windy conditions. While they’re able to fly, drones will be swept off course for a certain amount of time before they are able to detect the wind velocity.

Dr Edwin Davis from UQ's School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering is leading research into advancing drone technology in wind and airspeed detection.

He is developing multirotor drones with force sensors that detect and measure wind velocity so they are able to react and avoid being blown off course. This allows them to fly more safely and reliably through unexpected conditions.

To create a drone capable of this, Dr Davis is repurposing an air pressure sensor that is commonly used in phones, making it cost-effective to produce. This force sensor is then attached to the drone, allowing it to compute wind velocity so it can respond to changes in wind before it is taken off course, even by a centimetre.

Dr Davis’s research into creating smaller, safer, cheaper and more energy-efficient drones will have wide-reaching effects, including making its use in agricultural industries and search-and-rescue efforts safer.

Read more on Dr Davis's drone technology research.

Discover how we create change

From science and sustainability to health and humanities, UQ research has impact.