ARCHIVED - Celebrating 60 years of aerospace research

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October 03, 2011— Ottawa, Ontario

The NRC labs that created the crash position indicator, helped develop the Twin Otter aircraft and Canadarm, and managed the original Canadian Astronaut Program are celebrating 60 years of service to the Canadian aerospace industry. 

Thanks in part to NRC research, Canada ranks among the world’s top five aerospace nations with revenues of nearly $23 billion per year. More than 400 aerospace companies from coast to coast provide 82,000 high-quality jobs and serve a variety of niche markets such as regional jets, commuter aircraft, civilian helicopters, landing gear, flight simulators, and space robotics and imaging. 

As Canada's national aerospace laboratory, the NRC Institute for Aerospace Research (NRC Aerospace) undertakes and promotes research and development for the Canadian aerospace community in matters affecting the design, manufacture, performance, use and safety of aerospace vehicles. NRC’s facilities and equipment include nine research aircraft (fixed wing and rotary), eight wind tunnels, engine test cells, a full-scale structural test rig and a manufacturing technology centre.

Launched in 1951 as the National Aeronautical Establishment (NAE), NRC’s aerospace labs were originally housed within the Division of Mechanical Engineering. In its first year, the NAE worked with de Havilland to develop the Otter aircraft, which played an important role in opening Canada’s north. NAE researchers later assisted in the development of the Twin Otter and other aircraft. 

The NAE became a separate division of NRC in 1959 and was renamed the Institute for Aerospace Research (IAR) in 1990. Since its original incarnation, the Institute – now also called NRC Aerospace – has been a focal point for research excellence in aerodynamics, structures and materials, aeropropulsion and flight research.

Below are some examples of NRC aerospace achievements over the past 60 years. 

Aerodynamics

Throughout its history, the Aerodynamics Laboratory has given aerospace manufacturers the means to better design, predict and optimize the performance of their products. NRC constructed its first wind tunnel in 1930 and has supported the development of the Canadian aviation industry ever since. The Lab has also applied its expertise to applications related to surface vehicles, flexible structures and the performance of Olympic athletes. 

Supersonic fighter aircraft are tested in the 1.5-metre trisonic blowdown wind tunnel.

Supersonic fighter aircraft are tested in the 1.5-metre trisonic blowdown wind tunnel.

NRC’s rolling road simulates the movement of the road relative to the car so that automakers can perfect the aerodynamics of their vehicles.

NRC’s rolling road simulates the movement of the road relative to the car so that automakers can perfect the aerodynamics of their vehicles.

The lab’s highlights include the following:

  • In 1954, NRC and the Defence Research Board began building a 1.5-metre trisonic blowdown wind tunnel to help the military study the effects of high-speed airflows on supersonic fighter aircraft. Since 1960, this facility has provided the civil and military aviation industry with aerodynamic design, performance and stability data for business and regional aircraft as well as a complete range of military configurations.
  • In 1970, NRC commissioned a 9-metre low-speed wind tunnel to support vertical and short takeoff and landing technology for use in North Atlantic communities. The wind tunnel’s size also allowed aerodynamic testing on scaled models of bridges and buildings, including Vancouver’s Lion’s Gate Bridge and, more recently, Dubai’s Burj Kalifa, the world’s tallest building. 
  • During the 1970s, the rising price of fuel led NRC to develop first-generation drag-reduction technology for trucks that saved approximately 500 million litres of fuel annually in Canada alone. Three decades later, new greenhouse gas regulations and increasing oil prices created demand for more advanced technologies, so NRC researchers evaluated and improved on current and next-generation aerodynamics devices for trucks. Their research results, if applied to the Canadian trucking fleet, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than three megatonnes per year.
  • Since 1992, NRC’s 3-metre by 6-metre propulsion and icing wind tunnel has been used to investigate the hazards of aircraft icing. Landmark experiments simulated the effects of airplanes taking off under different weather and de-icing conditions. Such research has contributed to safer winter aircraft operations around the world.
  • In October 2009, NRC unveiled a “rolling road” in its 9-metre by 9-metre wind tunnel to help automakers and race car teams design vehicles that are more aerodynamic. Featuring a 5.6-metre-long belt, the facility simulates the movement of a road relative to a car at speeds of up to 160 kilometres per hour.
NRC’s fly-by-wire helicopters can be programmed to simulate a broad range of aircraft, including fixed-wing aircraft.

NRC’s fly-by-wire helicopters can be programmed to simulate a broad range of aircraft, including fixed-wing aircraft.

Flight research

NRC’s Flight Research Section was created in 1946, joining the NAE in 1951, and was later renamed the Flight Research Laboratory. From the start, the lab’s vision extended beyond research about flight to include research experimentation in flight. With a small fleet of test aircraft, NRC researchers have conducted experiments to advance aircraft and helicopter design, improve cockpit systems, enhance flight safety, and improve the understanding of weather, cloud physics and global climate change. In addition: 

  • NRC has developed helicopters that incorporate fly-by-wire systems capable of simulating the flight characteristics of a broad range of aircraft. These helicopters provide an R&D platform for in-flight “pilot in the loop” testing of advanced avionics systems such as flight controls, displays and synthetic vision technologies.
  • NRC was instrumental in the development of modern flight data recording systems and was the first organization to analyze an aircraft accident using information recovered from a flight data recorder.

NRC in space

NRC helped Canada enter the space age. In 1974, NRC researchers collaborated with SPAR Aerospace in the conceptual design of the remote manipulator system — also known as the Canadarm — for the Space Shuttle. In the early 1980s, NRC managed Canada's space science program and assembled the first Canadian astronaut team. A few years later, the Structures and Materials Lab developed the space vision system, a three-dimensional remote control system that was first used in 1995.

NRC carried out fatigue tests of the F/A-18 aircraft wing.

NRC carried out fatigue tests of the F/A-18 aircraft wing.

Structures and materials performance

Full-scale aircraft structural testing was already underway at NRC’s Department of Mechanical Engineering when the original NAE was created in 1951. Twelve years later, the Structures Laboratory developed methods for determining aircraft trajectories from debris fields — which provide valuable clues about the cause of a crash — in response to the crash of a DC-8 aircraft in Ste. Therese, Quebec. Since its early years, the lab’s mandate has gradually expanded into the science of engineering materials. Some highlights include the following: 

  • This NRC lab was one of the first in the world to recognize the value of fracture surface analysis, which relies on the fine features of a fracture surface to diagnose the mechanisms of crack growth and the causes of component failure. 
  • NRC’s aeroacoustics and structural dynamics facility has tested all of the satellites developed in Canada, from the early Anik models through RADARSAT.
  • In 2001, NRC researchers began a full-scale fatigue test of the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18 aircraft wing. The objective of this four-year test was to determine the economic life of the inner and outer wing box under more severe usage conditions typical of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force.

Gas turbine lab

NRC had been involved in gas turbine engine research for many years before the 2005 launch of its own Gas Turbine Laboratory (GTL). This laboratory has unique facilities and expertise to help industry develop and evaluate the performance of gas turbine engines and components in compliance with increasingly stringent environmental, safety and operational requirements.

  • NRC expertise supports the new Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER), owned by Pratt & Whitney Canada and Rolls-Royce Canada. Located in Thompson, Manitoba, the GLACIER facility is a 9-metre-diameter wind tunnel that sprays supercooled water mist into the world's largest aircraft turbines. The facility allows for the study of engine ice buildup, which can reduce power, choke multiple sensors and mislead the computers that now routinely manage flight control systems. 
NRC’s Aerospace Manufacture Technology Centre robotic department. Front: A track-mounted 500-kg (payload) robot with an automated drilling/riveting end-effector; Back: A smaller (250-kg) robot, suspended on a large overhead gantry (in grey), used to perform various joining/assembly operations.

NRC’s Aerospace Manufacture Technology Centre robotic department. Front: A track-mounted 500-kg (payload) robot with an automated drilling/riveting end-effector; Back: A smaller (250-kg) robot, suspended on a large overhead gantry (in grey), used to perform various joining/assembly operations.

Aerospace manufacturing technology

NRC’s Aerospace Manufacture Technology Centre (AMTC) opened in 2004 on the Université de Montréal campus. Its mission is to help Canadian aerospace manufacturers and their suppliers evaluate, demonstrate and implement new manufacturing technologies. The AMTC is active in four technology areas: forming and joining of composites; metallic products; automation, robotics and intelligent manufacturing systems; and material removal (focusing mainly on hard alloys and composites).

As the Institute – NRC Aerospace – moves into its seventh decade, it will continue contributing its expertise and facilities to the development and adoption of leaner, greener, safer and more efficient technologies for the industry, NRC Aerospace will work with other NRC research programs as well as university and industry partners on biofuels, lighter and stronger materials and healthier aircraft cabin environments, helping Canada maintain its position in the global aerospace economy.

Five decades of aerospace composites

NRC’s automated fibre placement machine is used for composite manufacturing research and technology development.

NRC’s automated fibre placement machine is used for composite manufacturing research and technology development.

Perhaps the most significant trend in aerospace materials engineering over the past 50 years has been the replacement of metallic structures with continuous fibre-reinforced composites, which feature polymer matrices reinforced with glass, Kevlar or carbon fibres. Today, Canadian-made composites fly on virtually all Canadian aircraft and are being shipped to other countries. NRC has conducted extensive research on composites structures, including the development of a novel process for manufacturing composite rib chords, which were adhesively bonded to wing skins produced by Bell Helicopter Textron, as well as an all-composite wingbox for the next generation of tilt-rotor aircraft. In the largest composites demonstrator project ever carried out in Canada — a $41-million initiative — NRC helped to develop a composite tailboom and fuselage in partnership with Bombardier Aerospace, Bell Helicopter Textron and Composites Atlantic.

 

Related information

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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