The new Ballistics and Impact Dynamics Lab at the National Institute for Aviation Research is now open, and it’s performing testing on oxygen bottles used on commercial airliners for B/E Aerospace in Olathe, its biggest client.
Inside a thick-walled containment building, the pressurized bottles are dropped and hit three times with fast-moving bullets. They’re also set on fire.
NIAR engineers and engineering students inside a control tower oversee and monitor the activities. And they capture a host of data and results.
The testing is designed to simulate the impact of a structural failure on an airplane.
Never miss a local story.
The new lab, part of NIAR’s environmental test labs, uses a custom-built ballistic firing device to propel 22 to 50 caliber rounds into the bottles and other components inside the 25-by-25 foot concrete building on the firing range.
The building was designed to capture the ballistic rounds and contain the potential failure of the pressurized oxygen bottles.
The lab, operated by Wichita State University, cost $300,000 to set up. It is located inside the former Britt Brown Arena at the Kansas Coliseum.
The ability to carry pressurized oxygen bottles safely on an airliner is crucial. They also must be shipped safely around the world, said Paul Jonas, the lab’s director.
In a demonstration Thursday for the media, a 50-caliber bullet traveled 2,842 feet per second as it rocketed from the firing device through a long, protective metal tube into the containment building, where it hit water balloons set up for the exhibition.
The bullet was stopped by a special trap on a back wall lined with bullet proof steel and filled with ballistic rubber to captures the rounds.
In the case of an oxygen bottle, the bottle can release the pressurization under testing, but it can’t fragment, to pass.
“Anything bigger than a quarter (the size of hole created) is a failure,” Jonas said. “It can’t explode or come apart.”
In the air, “you don’t want one to come apart like that on an airplane that could take everything out,” Jonas said.
The ballistics lab, which took a year to develop and open, analyzes data from such tests to understand what caused a bottle to come apart, if it did.
That helps the company with the design of such bottles, or other equipment.
The lab was designed to better understand the dynamics of impact and material performance.
“This lab couples the material and analytical strengths of NIAR with a unique ability to capture data about the impact event and how the material behaves under those conditions,” Jonas said.
It will be able to test a variety of materials used in airplanes, such as new materials, fuel tanks and other items that require high-risk testing.
Setting up the range and the lab took special effort. Everything was custom-designed and built.
The ballistic firing device was custom manufactured to NIAR’s specifications by a Texas company.
Each bullet is custom matched and hand-loaded for uniformity by a Nebraska company, Jonas said.
WSU students also provided a lot of input in its creation.
The lab’s control panel and fire control software were designed by a William Klausmeyer, a WSU sophomore in electrical engineering.
It employs several WSU students.
Safety is key factor.
A test typically takes three to four people to run, including a safety officer, Jonas said.
The control panel takes two keys to operate when a test is to be conducted.
Audio warnings and flashing lights on the range warn when the device is being loaded and to clear the range.
Cameras inside the control room show the area outside and inside the locked containment building. They’re monitored to make sure everything is clear and ready before the countdown begins.
A call is put in to police and emergency personnel to alert them they they are getting ready to shoot – in case someone in the area hears the shot and calls to report a shooting at the Kansas Coliseum, Jonas said.
They also call back once the shot is fired.
The lab’s next step is to add bird-strike and high velocity projectile capabilities later this year.
The new test facility will be located next to the ballistic range and operate from the same control tower.
Airplane structures and their windshields must be tested to ensure they can withstand a hit by a bird in the air.
Airplanes that have Wi-Fi, the Internet and telephone access require need new antennas.
“Those have to be bird struck,” Jonas said. “There’s a lot of demand for that type of work.”