South African University Fosters Innovation and Safety in General Aviation

“Never underestimate the creativity and potential of a young mind,” Jan Rombouts, the Chairman of Belgium Campus, tells us early one autumn morning as we sit in an airplane hangar, built for an innovative group of technology students.  Located on the outskirts of Pretoria, the Technology University is a far cry from sheer scale of the headquarters or innovation hub for Tesla or even Blue Origin. And yet, it is here, in a small South African suburb, that the future of aviation is emerging.

Explain.

Walking through the hanger, the team of students points out the other innovations currently underway and how no expense has been spared to ensure they have everything they need to explore their ideas and visions; illustrating the university’s passion for the ICT sector and the kinetic power and influence at its command. 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.”

Innovation is a Driver

The South African general aviation market is extremely small compared to the world leaders like United States and of course, China, who are currently the world’s fastest growing in this segment.  That being said, the Aeronautics Project focuses on airspace as a platform for commercial and social innovation.

“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,” he 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.”

The aircraft is a thing of beauty and something to marvel. The team take me through each component, explaining the improvements they have developed, and of course, the impressive list of innovations any future technologist would be proud to have developed. The fuselage, they explain, was imported from the United States, due mainly to its aerodynamic shape for speed and safety. “Canard Pusher aircraft have an inherent safety advantage since they are insusceptible to loss of control from stalls and spins,” I am told. “And this plane we are building will push small aircraft speed limits beyond the conventional 120km/h to 400km/h, so performance and safety need to go hand in hand.” Months of research was dedicated to aircraft engine performance and a Belgian engine was flown in to meet their requirements. The prop originates from New Zealand, while the glass cockpit is a proudly South African component designed and manufactured in Stellenbosch by MGL Avionics. They explain that they chose MGL’s cockpit particularly, because it is an open-source system which gives them the freedom to develop further on what is existing.

Old Technology, Aging Planes, High Mortality Rates

Rombouts, an aviator himself with 40 years of aviation experience, points to the dire need for innovation in general aviation, namely fuel efficiency and safety above all else. “In an age of technology and advancement, it is troubling to accept that most of the hobbyist and sport aircraft are basically unchanged from the models first introduced in the early fifties.”

There, in the heart of the Belgium Campus Learning Factory, students are now focusing on making private flight safer by addressing one of the biggest categories of accidents: loss of control. Compared to commercial planes, private aircraft lack safety features and redundancies, including co-pilots, backup systems for navigation information and extra engines. “A lot of people think innovation is creating something new,” he shares. “When oftentimes, innovation is in fact combining existing things and giving them a new purpose. Yes, we developed new software, but the components we are using are already existing in other industries.”

“Everything that you can create to reduce the workload of the pilot immediately increases their safety,” the Chairman continues. “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.” One of the young students add that 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.”

The Aeronautics Project is currently engaged in developing affordable components that can be used by anyone, ultimately increasing safety in the cockpit for the general aviation sector. “As a pilot, I know the risks at play with aviation, but what troubles me are the statistics. General aviation flights are 82 times riskier than commercial airline trips. This needs to be addressed across the industry. The technology is there, and this is why we are trying to make it more affordable and readily available.”

Moving into a Brighter Future for Education

The team at Belgium Campus believe that if the future belongs to scientists, technicians and engineers, our educational system needs to reflect that reality. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is the buzzword in the education system of late and as educators they believe that if there was a move toward adding more practical elements into universities and even high schools, something that is oftentimes obscure like geometry, for instance, can be real and exciting.

“All too often higher education focuses on practical components that students have completed year after year, the same thing. We believe in using this energy to foster innovation,” the Chairman adds. “You can teach a student through a theoretical base, but we found over the years that all companies would then need to send their new employees on practical training and this is why we implement a practical component to every course. As soon as students are involved in a tangible project where they can add value, the interest is there and they perform better.”

“At Belgium Campus, we maintain that one of the most important lessons we can take from the internet age is that we can’t anticipate what will happen when we give young people an exciting new platform, along with the freedom to innovate on top of it.”

What the Velocity Project at Belgium Campus Has Developed

Innovation I | Pilot Monitoring

Rombouts and the team did research and found a Swedish company, AutoLiv, who developed a state-of-the-art driver monitoring system (DMS). He and the team then set about to develop software to supplement this system, which was specific to pilots. He shows me a series of small cameras inside and outside the aircraft, part of a pilot monitoring system they developed in two short weeks. The system, he explains, can detect a distracted, drowsy or non-responsive pilot by accurately measuring eye and head position.

How It Works

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.

Innovation II | Night Vision

“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.

Innovation III | Accurate Landing Positioning

Current GPS systems in general aviation craft will take you to a runway, within about two meters. However, these systems do not give accurate height readings in poor weather conditions. The height of an aircraft is measured by a barometer and the readings given by the older technology in sports aircraft and private planes, don’t always accurately measure the current atmospheric pressure. “This sounds minor, but small differences can result in a massive differentiation,” the Chairman shares. “You may think you are 30 meters above the ground based on the readings you are given, but could be a few centimetres from the ground and crash.”

How it Works

In an effort to increase safety on such aircraft, they are developing a small radar that from 40 meters above the ground, can measure precisely to 1cm an aircraft’s position. 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. He 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.

Innovation IV | Automated Pre-Flight Checklist

Every pilot, works with a pre-flight checklist. In a commercial plane, the co-pilot assists the pilot through the list, while in general aviation, there is no co-pilot. So, the moment the pilot is reading through his checklist, he is not flying or looking at his instruments.

How it Works

No trouble for the students at Belgium Campus. Their ingenious minds created a mobile app whereby the pilot connects his phone to the audio panel and the pre-flight inspection is read out loud as he checks off each item on his yoke. The list can be modified to the pilot’s needs as each aircraft is different. “This is a simple piece of technology that doesn’t exist in general aviation today, but something that can reduce the workload of the pilot and in turn increase safety,” Rombouts highlights.

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 his students, you can place sequences inside to remind the pilot through the audio panel of something as simple as switching fuel tanks.

Innovation V | Full Digital and Backup Throttle

In the majority of aircraft, the engine is in the front of the plane, and from the cockpit to the throttle, you have a short cable. In planes with engines in the back, you have a long line of cable that weaves through the aircraft mainframe, bending and curving until it reaches the cockpit. When these cables snap, jam and break, the leave the pilot with a dramatic loss of control of the aircraft.

How it Works

While they were developing a digital throttle to improve on the safety of a cabled throttle, they realised there were other factors at play that could decrease safety, namely, a short circuit in the server or if the battery ran out of power. They went back to the proverbial drawing board and developed a backup throttle system that runs off a completely different server and power source. The result, a throttle with a backup that is activated by an actuator when one system fails. “On its own, there is nothing extraordinary about it, but as a backup, it will save lives,” Rombouts imparts.

By Candice Turner, ITwF Editor