Wichita State scientist develops new virtual tests for bird strikes, planes

Bird-impact research helps develop good materials and designs for cockpit windows, wings and tail sections.
Bird-impact research helps develop good materials and designs for cockpit windows, wings and tail sections. File photo

A scientist at Wichita State University has developed new virtual tests to analyze how airplanes behave during bird strikes, officials at the university said on Tuesday.

The innovation could save aerospace companies a lot of money over time because virtual testing will reduce the need for some expensive actual tests where they smash cockpit windows and airplane wings, said Gerardo Olivares, who created the software tools and methods.

No amount of research can prevent bird strikes, Olivares said. But bird-impact research has developed good materials and designs for cockpit windows, wings and tail sections.

“We’ve learned how to develop structures so that if it hits the cockpit windows, it won’t penetrate, or if it hits the wing, it won’t compromise safety of flight,” he said.

Aerospace engineers and WSU officials have said Olivares has already saved aerospace companies millions of dollars worldwide by developing other virtual crash test analysis tools and methods. The work on virtual bird-impact testing will continue that science and the savings, Olivares said.

“Bird-strike testing is nearly all done in physical testing now, and is very expensive,” he said.

Olivares’ innovation has another benefit, WSU officials said on Tuesday.

Olivares is creating an independent company, Vimotech, to partner with WSU to commercialize the work.

The larger significance of the business partnership with Olivares, and other agreements like it, will become key to WSU’s future, and possibly to south-central Kansas’ future as a more tech-oriented economy, WSU officials say.

The agreement with Olivares will become the first such “tech transfer” creation since President John Bardo began a push for more such partnerships, WSU officials said. “For WSU this marks a new page,” said John Tomblin, Olivares’ boss at the National Institute for Aviation Research.

The plans mean WSU researchers will invent and market new innovations, and create partnerships with independent businesses to do the same.

“We talk about entrepreneurship in Wichita but the fact is, Wichita historically has been a poor performer in generating start-up companies based on invention and entrepreneurship,” Tomblin said. “But there are scientists here at Wichita now who feel like they can breathe, and create as never before now. We’ve got other ideas like this one lined up down the road.”

Some of those businesses, under Bardo’s plan, would be formed by the WSU research scientists who create the innovations, giving them an incentive to create income while they explore science. Olivares said that whatever might be earned by Vimotech will be spent on more research in the labs at the National Institute for Aviation Research, where he works.

“We’re going to see if we can create some revenue for the lab to do more research in the future,” Olivares said. “A lot of times, we do research and then put it on the shelf and don’t do anything with it. Now we’re going to see if we can generate more revenue for the lab.”

The software for virtual bird strike testing is finished. Olivares developed it from eight years of research. NIAR aerospace clients helped with some research, he said.

The name Vimotech is a contraction of “virtual modeling technology.” The software developed by the company virtually models scenarios involving bird strikes on commercial aircraft, and how aircraft and component parts react to impacts.

Besides doing research, Olivares teaches. About half of the 40 people who work for Olivares at NIAR are WSU master’s or doctoral students. Aviation company officials say many aviation companies are stocked with his former students.

“We hope other researchers at the university can look at what he has done and envision the future of their research and technology innovations,” Tomblin said.

Tomblin said this agreement is another step in the new direction Bardo directed after he arrived in the summer of 2012. Besides more tech transfer, the university has a broader but related goal: creating what Bardo has called a new “innovation campus” at the southeast corner of the main campus.

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