Max Betchel/Courtesy Photo

Forty-eight Cal Poly students were part of the Boundary Layer Data System (BLDS), a nine-year-old aerospace sensory project, which was used by Boeing in its ecoDemonstrator flight tests in January. The BLDS is a system of small autonomous devices that measure the flow of air around experimental aircraft during use.

Mechanical engineering professor Russell Westphal conceived the idea of the BLDS in 2005, but was unable to gain traction with the project until 2008, when he got a team of Cal Poly students working on it under contract from American global aerospace and defense technology company Northrop Grumman. Since then the project has had eight senior projects to support it, several master theses and has carried on work over summer and throughout the year.

Despite his long time involvement as head of the project, Westphal said the project has been entirely student-driven.

“Everything we’ve done has been contract work involving students. All the development work, all the applications work, all the testing we’ve done at ground-based facilities on campus; it has all [been] done by students and none of it has been done by me as a consultant or anything like that,” Westphal said. “It really is a 100 percent student-focused project and the whole goal of it was to involve students in something that was unique.”
Many of the students that worked on the project now work for Northrop Grumman, Westphal said.

Mechanical engineering graduate student Htet Htet Oo is one of those people, having secured a full-time position at Northrop Grumman. She worked on the BLDS during the summer of 2014.

“I hope to pursue a Ph.D and become a professor in the future,” Oo said. “My ultimate dream is to come back to Cal Poly and teach and inspire the next generation of engineers and provide them with many opportunities like Dr. Westphal has done for many of his students.”

Her contribution was self-heating aerogel insulation that allowed the sensors to operate in temperatures between  negative 40 and negative 57 degrees Celsius, the temperature range for a plane flying at altitudes between 30,000 and 40,000 feet. Before her, the electronics were unreliable and would quit gathering data in those conditions.

“I was very nervous about doing wind tunnel testings on my own at first, but I really learned to trust myself as Dr. Westphal has trusted me with thousands of dollars worth of equipment,” Oo said. “The work has helped me become a more confident and independent student-engineer.”

Aerospace engineering senior Paul Kujawa has been working on the BLDS since the start of last summer. He has focused on software development, defining parameters to get rid of junk inputs and ensuring the inputs and outputs of the sensors are clear.

“At this point we have basically come as far as we can in terms of shape of the airplane and layout and everything. It’s been determined. Low wings, swept wings, twin engine airplane is the most efficient,” Kujawa said. “From here on we have to go into the finer details refining aerodynamics, which is where the BLDS comes in.”

Kujawa heard of Westphal through mechanical engineering professor Graham Doig, and joined because he believed the reduction of boundary layer drag is the future of aeronautics.

“What Boeing is doing with their ecoDemonstrator is fantastic,” Kujawa said. “It really represents the future of aviation.”

His next step, Kujawa said, is to make the system accessible from the ground. It is completely headless, meaning testers are unable to gather any information about how the sensors are doing until they take them off the plane and connect the sensors to computers. He also said other people on the team are working to update the computer system the BLDS works on.

The BLDS development gained primary support from Northrop Grumman, but has also been aided by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Boeing, the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Group from Edwards Air Force Base, Lockheed Martin, Constant and Dorothy Chrones and the Donald E. Bently Center for Engineering Innovation.

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