Local students develop safety-first aircraft


Students at local ICT-focused learning institute, Belgium Campus, have built an aircraft that uses software that aims to address the need for pilot safety.

Named Velocity, the aircraft is part of the faculty’s Aeronautics Research Project.

With the guidance of industry leaders, such as pilots, aeronautical engineers, aircraft maintenance organisations and lecturers, students at the tertiary institution began working on their own aircraft model in August 2017.

According to Jan Rombouts, executive chairman of Belgium Campus and project lead, after identifying that the two most common causes of death in general aviation are loss of aircraft control and lack of oxygen due to high altitudes, the students were motivated to deal with this issue.
“For example, between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, there are limitations on flight time before you require oxygen. Above 12,000 feet you will require oxygen and/or a pressurised cabin.” While in theory, this is the norm, the reality is that there are private pilots who have lung conditions like asthma or they have severe lung damage from smoking, and something as minor as flying at 8,000 feet can have devastating consequences. According to aviation statistics, every year there are more than 1,000 accidents globally due to pilots passing out from a lack of oxygen. “There is no way of knowing as it happens so quickly and in seconds the plane no longer has a pilot in control. So, with the students, we thought, there has to be a solution to this as most private pilots don’t have a co-pilot with them.”

Once a solution was found, Rombouts notes, the students developed an aircraft with software that addresses the need for pilot safety. “Our Velocity is programmed and designed by a team here, including aeronautics engineers, ensuring the safety of the build.”

The solution is based on a driver monitoring system (DMS) that uses a series of small cameras inside and outside the aircraft. The system can detect a distracted, drowsy or non-responsive pilot by accurately measuring eye and head position. When there is no response from the pilot within a few seconds, an alarm is sounded and the pilot is given a few more seconds to respond. Should he be busy with a map for instance, he will switch it off, and in the event he has lost consciousness, a sequence of activities begins. First, the auto-pilot will engage and try bringing the plane to a lower altitude to help the pilot regain consciousness, taking the terrain below into consideration. At the same time, with the GPS tracking of local towers and radios, a series of distress messages will be sent out on the radio waves, so that neighbouring pilots and air traffic control are aware of the situation.
“This technology has been around for a long time and is used by commercial airliners,” he explains. “Troubling though, for the general aviation market, is it is not affordable. It was then that we decided to do research the night vision systems utilised by top automobile brands around the world and found that AutoLiv was the manufacturer of these systems. They sent us a sample of the system and we are currently developing software for aircraft night vision.” Rombouts also stresses that while night vision is extremely important, what they will additionally be adding to the system is obstacle recognition for the runway, taking the centre line into consideration.

Belgium Campus is also developing a small radar that from 40 meters above the ground, can measure precisely to 1cm of an aircraft’s position, improving the accuracy of GPS. This is an important safety addition for landing in bad weather or at night, as the radar will pinpoint exactly where the plane is in relation to the ground. Rombouts explains that these are systems already in existence for commercial aviation, but due to the exorbitant costs of attaining them, very few aircraft in the general aviation sector have them. “We have now made it affordable and accessible and you’re looking at a lifesaving piece of equipment that will cost private pilots around $500,” he adds.

Another innovative technology being developed is the automated pre-flight checklist, using a mobile app. The app has additional benefits when it comes to fuel mismanagement, one of the top four causes of aircraft engine failures. Most aircraft carry fuel in their wings, with valves to switch off flow of fuel in each wing to balance the plane. Theoretically, you have to switch your fuel flow from left to right or right to left, every twenty minutes. If the pilot is distracted by bad weather or simply forgets to switch between the two, the typical aircraft provides minimal warning of impending fuel exhaustion and it only takes a moment for the engine to stall when one tank has run empty. This is a typical accident because by the time the pilot switches tanks after the stall, and gets the motor back up and running, the plane cannot recover at a low altitude and crashes. On the app and software developed by Rombout’s students, you can place sequences inside to remind the pilot through the audio panel of something as simple as switching fuel tanks.

Another innovation is a digital throttle, avoiding the problem of physical cables snapping, jamming or breaking.

The chairman explains that in aviation, most of the systems, besides the glass cockpit, have remained the same when compared to those used up to the 1960s. This, he says, is due to the over-regulated and unfeasible financial certification process.

Although most of the components and technology used in the project already exists in the technological market, the students redefined the technology so that it meets the required functions, notes Rombouts.

Core components required to build Velocity were sourced both locally and abroad. The aircraft prop is from New Zealand, the engine comes from Belgium, the fuselage and wings are from the US and the radio and transponder are also from the US. The aircraft has a canard pusher layout, which gives it an inherent safety advantage since they are insusceptible to loss of control from stalls and spins. The glass cockpit is a proudly South African component designed and manufactured in Stellenbosch by MGL Avionics.

The management and academic team believe that through empowering their students to innovate and revolutionise their worlds, many more astonishing solutions flow through the campus that will greatly benefit every type of industry and sector. One such undertaking is their Aeronautics Project where students are given access to the field of Aeronautics and have a full-scale airport hangar at their disposal. “They’ve explored everything from missile-lock technology on fighter jets to seatbelt light activations on Boeing 737s,” Rombouts proudly states. “I’ve been at Belgium Campus for almost twenty years now and we all truly believe that bright minds thrive best when offered the space in which to create. That’s why we’ve constructed physical innovation spaces called ‘Learning Factories’. Here, our students are given the space and tools to take their ideas from prototype to marketplace, and this is a key focus for us in 2018.”

Rombouts states work on Velocity is an ongoing process. “This project has no end-date scheduled; this aircraft is due for innovation and upgrades no matter how small. The projects always revolve around the safety of pilots and to decrease the overall workload for the pilot, allowing it to be a safe and fun experience.”

The Velocity aircraft has already been moved to Wonderboom Airport, its headquarter facility. The decision to move the aircraft to Wonderboom Airport is so that it undergoes the required test flights, which should be in the next month or two, says the project leader.

Nothing has been set in stone about deploying Velocity commercially yet, but things may change at a later stage.
“This is the first of its kind so placing it commercially would come with a certain risk. The aviation industry classifies our Velocity project as ‘experimental’ as the technology built in has never been used in commercial aircraft at a small scale.
“So for research purposes, allowing our students to push boundaries and the complete aviation sector, this aircraft will remain experimental and for research purposes only. It will be data-driven… learning from each and every single flight. Wind adjustments and altitude measurements will provide insight to improve safety in aviation.
“The aircraft we are building is purely experimental, as general aviation regulations prohibit modifications to certified aircraft. Within two years, the aircraft will take off and land on its own, but due to its size, legislation in South Africa insists a pilot needs to be inside the cockpit,” Rombouts explains. He continues that one of the biggest hurdles to innovation in this sector are regulations. “In truth, there are some technological hurdles to overcome before this vision of next-generation aviation comes to realisation, but regulations and extremely expensive certification processes can set innovation and reform back years, especially for start-ups and SMEs.”