Engineering lab is up in the air, but down-to-earth


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Inside an airport hangar in Iowa City, virtuality meets reality as students, researchers, and pilots experience firsthand new technological advances in air travel.

Operating at the Iowa City Municipal Airport, 1801 S. Riverside Drive, the Operator Performance Laboratory is a part of the Center for Computer-Aided Design in the College of Engineering. Led by Tom Schnell, a UI associate professor of industrial engineering, the airport-based lab cranks out top-of-the-line research dealing largely with high-tech improvements to travel safety, especially in flight.

“We’re interested in providing the human with an enhanced ability to operate machinery,” Schnell said.

Two aircraft in the laboratory hangar are fully computerized internally with top-notch technology that Schnell said no other college campus has. The researcher has taken the standard, immovable flight simulator and made it smaller and portable, allowing for a flight simulation in an actual aircraft. A pilot can then fly above the Iowa terrain while getting the experience of a mission flown through, for instance, a California mountain range.

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“I can fly around the area and blend virtuality and reality,” said Schnell, a licensed commercial pilot.
While research is going on, Schnell said it is typical for pilots to be brought out to the lab for test flights roughly twice a week for several weeks.

“If people are pilots around here, I probably know them, and I’ve likely had them out at my lab,” Schnell said.

The airport laboratory is large, housing three relatively small aircraft, including an Aerovodochody L-29 Delfin and a Beechcraft A-36 Bonanza. High-tech helmets rest on shelves and in display cases. A large commercial-airline simulator requires stairs to enter the cockpit replica, which was mostly constructed by Schnell and his students.

Roughly eight students help with research. For most, the program has opened up possibilities for internships and careers with employers, such as Rockwell Collins, Caterpillar, and NASA.

“As a student, the experience we get out here is priceless,” UI graduate student Kyle Ellis said. His work has made his college experience unique, he said, remembering flights over the UI campus in between classes.

The 24-year-old spends roughly 40 hours per week in the lab, and sophomore Darin Hoover averages 15 hours of lab work. Working at such an intense pace with Schnell is worth the time commitment, the 20-year-old said.

“It teaches you to become a better researcher, and it’s great to constantly be working with the technology that’s hot at the moment,” Ellis said.

Many of the projects inside the laboratory are like something out of a movie: a helmet designed to maximize a pilot’s performance during flight, especially in combat, overlays images onto the actual terrain — like a view from within the Iron Man suit. Eye sensors educate researchers on when a machine-operator is most attentive. A flight suit that seems to have a mind of its own helps with navigation via touch rather than sight, vibrating when it senses what the pilot needs to be doing at any given time.

And the work coming out of the lab has received recognition. In 2007, Schnell won the Innovator of the Year award from the Technology Association of Iowa for the Flight Bag, a low-cost, synthetic vision system designed to give pilots a view of terrain when visibility conditions aren’t great. And it’s just one of the many projects inside the hangar.

“You’re getting plunged into the real world of what you want to do with your education,” Ellis said. “You can’t get that stuff in the classroom.”

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