100 years of innovation in civil aviation

December 07, 2017— Ottawa, Ontario

Each year on December 7, the world celebrates International Civil Aviation Day, reminding us of the importance of connecting people through the skies.

Canada's aerospace industry is vibrant, with a rich history and elite reputation on the global stage. The National Research Council (NRC) has proudly played a large part over its 100-year existence, developing solutions and stimulating growth for the industry.

In honour of International Civil Aviation Day, we recount the NRC's accomplishments in helping realize a better flight experience for all. From inventing the precursor to the "black box," to enhancing flight safety in ice conditions, read the stories below to learn how we are innovating in civil aviation.

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Alternative fuel takes flight

Fuel nozzle yielding green oilseed plant

The NRC's research in biofuels is leading the way for the qualification and acceptance of biofuels in aviation. These green fuels benefit the global aerospace industry while protecting and preserving the environment.

In 2012, the NRC achieved an enormous milestone for the aviation industry: it flew the first civil jet powered by 100 % unblended biofuel, converted from an industrial oilseed crop. The NRC Falcon 20 jet proved that the new biofuel could take off as an alternative to petroleum. The success of that historic flight led to a collaborative agreement between the NRC and NASA to study the atmospheric effects of emissions of these fuels.

We continue to make strides in green fuels. In spring 2017, working with partners in the Civil Aviation Alternate Fuel Contrail and Emissions Research (CAAFCER) project, the NRC sampled and tested biofuel contrails and emissions from an Air Canada flight, looking to further understand biofuel impact on the environment.

Innovation in icing

GLACIER facility

The work at the NRC to keep planes ice-free began in 1939. By the 1940s, the NRC's responsibilities expanded to include icing detection, mitigation and engine-icing certification. Flash-forward to modern-day aircraft: the NRC has become a world leader and innovator in combating and detecting aviation icing. The NRC is a fundamental partner in Rolls-Royce Canada and Pratt & Whitney Canada's Global Aerospace Centre for Icing and Environmental Research (GLACIER) in Manitoba, Canada. GLACIER is at the forefront of engine icing innovation and certification.

Meanwhile, in 2014 an NRC team won a prestigious award for designing, fabricating, testing, delivering and operating an iso-kinetic probe (IKP) to support NASA and the aerospace industry's goal of better understanding and qualifying the safety hazards of engine icing.

Aircraft icing can happen even in tropical areas, specifically when flying at high altitudes. Looking for a breakthrough in understanding tropical high altitude ice crystal icing, an international team including NRC scientists created the High Altitude Ice Crystals-High Ice Water Content (HAIC-HIWC) project.

In 2016, the NRC announced the development of two leading-edge aviation icing detection technologies: the Particle Detection Probe and the Ultrasound Ice Accretion Sensor. Both technologies provide pilots with critical information about icing conditions in which they may be operating so that they can make informed navigational decisions.

Most recently, the NRC upgraded its Altitude Icing Wind Tunnel with a new ice crystal generating system—helping aerospace manufacturers who must meet new and evolving regulations to prove the airworthiness of their products.  It is one of the few wind tunnels in the world that can simulate and test aircraft surfaces, components and probes in icing conditions at altitude.

Innovating in passenger and crew comfort

Smiling passengers on a flight

The NRC is building a new facility to help airlines, original equipment manufacturer suppliers and airframers develop and advance technologies to improve people's air travel experience. The Cabin Comfort and Environment Research facility will be a unique centre in Ottawa, Ontario for cabin demonstration, capable of investigating the effects and impact of integration of new cabin designs and technologies on passengers' comfort and travel experience.

The Cabin Comfort facility will make use of innovative technology such as a Sound and Light Simulator Panel that will accurately reproduce the sound and light levels passengers experience during flight. The simulator panels will be used to evaluate window shade, lighting and acoustic technologies.

Meanwhile, flying long hours in an environment of relentless jolting and shaking could leave helicopter aircrews with negative effects on their comfort, safety and health. The Department of National Defence enlisted the NRC's assistance to help minimize effects of these vibrations. Alongside defence engineers, NRC researchers developed an innovative solution: a seat cushion integrating traditional foam with a novel energy-absorbing, hexagonal material.

Revolutionary technology for drones to avoid collisions

Drone flying over city

With unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) becoming increasingly popular, the risk of collision with manned aircraft has become a concern. The NRC developed the Passive Intelligent Collision Avoidance Sensor (PICAS) system, which allows unmanned aircraft to detect oncoming aircraft more accurately than ever before in order to avoid collisions and enhance safety. This puts the NRC on course to make the first commercially viable sense and avoid system by 2018.

De-risking planes before they hit airspace

To create a successful product, companies must advance emerging and maturing technologies in prototypes to a level where the risk is acceptable from both a business and a regulatory standpoint. The NRC joined forces with Bombardier Aerospace and L-3 MAS to certify the winglet structure of their newest business jet, the Challenger 350.

The collaboration of these industry leaders yielded a customized platform to validate Bombardier's analyses and demonstrate the strength of the new components under the highest expected service loads to meet Transport Canada certification requirements.

Crash position indicator

Man holding piece of equipment in front of plane

In the 1940s, the NRC's Harry Stevinson designed a crash-resistant radio beacon, the precursor of the modern "black box." The beacon was designed to fall away from a downed aircraft, turn on and then beam out a homing signal to call attention to its vault of data.

The NRC licensed this technology to a Canadian company, where it was combined with innovations from other countries to further monitor an aircraft's systems. The "black box" has been a permanent fixture on modern aircraft since the 1970s. As a contributing pioneer, the NRC not only gained recognition for its technologies, but also acquired vast expertise in retrieving data from flight recorders.

Flying by wire

Helicopter pilot seated in cockpit

In 2003, the NRC was recognized for its innovative work in the development of fly-by-wire (FBW) helicopters, which were initially created in 1960 in its FBW laboratory. The technology enables pilots to focus on other mission-related tasks while guidance is safely controlled through electronic signals and computer systems.

Scientists tested this technology using a modified NRC Bell helicopter as the airborne flight simulator. The NRC has since developed successive generations of FBWs and now operates one of the world's most advanced flight training centres.

Improving the eyes in the sky

Bush plane exploration pushed north in the 1930s as the map of Canada began to require more detail. In response, the NRC played a major role in developing efficient and effective aerial survey equipment that allowed detailed mapping and a rich inventory of natural resources.

Two bush planes flying over lake surrounded by mountains

After many tests, including the use of advanced wind tunnel facilities, NRC research dramatically increased the stability and aeronautics of aerial camera attachments. The NRC's designs gave bush pilots better tools to identify objects from the air and fill in the map of Canada.

Shedding light on hidden flaws

Before taking off, all factors potentially detrimental to flight safety must be identified, including wear-and-tear issues. Operators must anticipate and assess these risks, yet avoid unnecessary replacements and labour costs. The NRC aimed to address this inspection problem by adapting a technology originally developed by Diffracto Ltd. to inspect automobiles using reflected light to sweep an aircraft's vast surface.

This technique identified minute imperfections and flagged them for closer inspection for potential corrosion, impact strikes or aging defects. The identification of minor surface anomalies and their later associated underlying problems has helped in getting planes up in the air safely.

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