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Ron Barrett-Gonzalez and Roelof Vos demonstrate a vaccuum tube

R. Steve Dick/University Relations

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of aerospace engineering, right, and Roelof Vos, a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant, demonstrate a vacuum tube used to test aircraft parts. The two recently received the world's top honors, along with a recent KU graduate, for their work in aerospace engineering.

Flying high

KU lands nation's top honors for aerospace engineering

Kansas has long been known as a leader in aircraft manufacture. Three members of the Department of Aerospace Engineering recently proved the state also is home to some of the world's best minds in flight.

The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics recently honored two KU students outstanding aircraft design and for performing cutting-edge flight-structure research. A KU faculty member also was recognized for his exemplary teaching of enginering. The awards were presented recently at the institute's 46th annual Aerospace Sciences Meeting and Exhibit in Reno, Nev.

Nobuya Nishio, a 2007 graduate of KU, took first place in the Individual Airplane Design Competition. Nishio designed a "light sport aircraft" that can take two people on short trips in speed and comfort while looking good at the same time.

"Nobuya came up with one of the most beautiful aircraft I've seen in a long time," said Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of aerospace design and project adviser. "His design makes a lot of sense and can open up the skies to a lot of people who wouldn't normally fly."

The craft would cost about $45,000, have a range of roughly 300 miles and be able to fly at more than double the speed of an automobile. The plane uses advanced graphite-epoxy composite materials and innovative fabrication techniques, including in-shell rotary-molding and wing pultrision to keep costs below conventional aluminum and competing composite aircraft materials. The design minimizes weight and drag on the plane, enabling it to travel 300 miles while burning only 17 gallons of fuel.

The plane uses a "tandem wing three-surface configuration," which provides an even distribution of lift between front and aft wings, good controllability, high speed and high efficiency. The aircraft could travel from Kansas City to St. Louis in just one hour and 45 minutes, Barrett-Gonzalez said.

The craft's sleek design was a result of collaboration between Nishio and KU's School of Fine Arts. Nishio applied the laws of physics and mathematics to his plane, then consulted with design faculty to come up with a plane that would not only fly efficiently, but look good doing it.

Nishio's award was the 18th time a Jayhawk has won the design competition since it began in 1968, more than any other aerospace engineering department in the world.

Submitted/Ron Barrett-Gonzalez

KU alumnus Nobuya Nishio recently won first place in an international competition for aircraft design.

In recognizing Nishio's efforts, the AIAA awarded him with a plaque and a $2,500 check. Since graduating, Nishio has taken a job with Mitsubishi Motors in his native Japan. Barrett-Gonzalez said Nishio has the potential to be "the Japanese version of Alan Mulally." Mulally, an alumnus of the aerospace engineering department at KU, was the president of Boeing's commercial airplane division for many years and recently was named CEO of Ford Motor Co.

Another KU student was recognized for his research that "applies the lessons of Mother Nature to human flight." Roelof Vos, a doctoral student, Fulbright fellow and graduate teaching assistant, received the Abe M. Zarem Award for Aeronautics Research. The award is the top honor for graduate student research in the field.

Vos' work focuses on using adaptive materials in aircraft wings that would emulate how bird wings operate in flight. His paper "Post-Buckled Precompressed Elements: A New Class of Control Actuators for Morphing Wing UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)" focuses on actuators, which enable a wing to move in flight. The actuators expand or contract in response to an applied electrical signal. Just as a bird's musculature will respond to electrical signals from its brain, the actuators similarly respond to flight controller commands.

The technology would provide for smoother-riding aircraft and could extend the life of planes. As a plane encounters turbulence, the air currents that cause the "bumps" are extremely brief in duration. Vos' actuators would enable a craft's wings to move up or down 30 times per second to counteract the currents. The effect is comparable to shock absorbers providing for a smoother-riding car.

"Roelof's work is nothing short of revolutionary," Barrett-Gonzalez said. "He's bringing the idea of bird-like flight in commercial air travel a huge step closer to reality."

By reducing the stress on parts during flight, a plane's life span could be increased, which in turn could lead to safer flight on less-stressed aircraft and, ultimately, lower cost air travel.

Vos, a native of Holland, met Barrett-Gonzalez while the professor was teaching there on sabbatical. Recognizing him as one of the top students in the class, Barrett-Gonzalez recruited Vos to KU, where he is continuing his research while teaching an aerospace instrumentation class. He is working to prove the devices on a small scale, so they can eventually be applied to large-scale aircraft. Given the profound implications of his work on the aerospace industry, his work is protected by an international patent filing.

"There are multiple applications for these types of actuators and technologies," Vos said. "The trick is to apply the techniques smartly to all size of aircraft. All the benefits are the same, although they would have to be applied differently according to the size of the aircraft."

Barrett-Gonzalez, who worked with both students on their winning projects, received an honor of his own from the AIAA: the Abe M. Zarem Educator Award. The honor recognizes the country's top aerospace engineering educator.

A KU alumnus, his research has centered on flight control using adaptive aerostructures for nearly 20 years. Barrett-Gonzalez was among the first to gain patents in the area, and several aerospace companies have implemented the technologies in high-speed, precision flight control systems. The high accuracy and rapid response capabilities make the actuators valuable to another area of his research, countermunitions.

Barrett-Gonzalez's lab is the only U.S. academic facility that specializes in countermunitions, which are designed to protect aircraft and people by intercepting munitions fired at them. If a projectile were fired at an aircraft equipped with the countermunitions, it could be detected and nullified before it struck the aircraft. The munitions are not lethal to humans.

"If something is fired at your aircraft, all you would have to do is fire one of these rounds and it would disable it," Barrett-Gonzalez said. "It's odd to think about saving lives by designing better bullets but that's exactly what we are doing."

While the success of the department has surprised some, Barrett-Gonzalez said it shouldn't.

"We have some very sharp students. We are so proud of them," he said. A lot of people think you have to go to Stanford or MIT or an Ivy League school, but if you want the best engineering education, you'll get it right here at KU."

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