Ideas for plane efficiency taking flight at Cal Poly

A Cal Poly aerospace team is working toward the creation of future commercial planes that are quieter and quicker to take off and that use shorter runways and less fuel.

Aerospace engineering professor David Marshall is the university’s principal investigator on a $4.5 million grant from NASA to devise a plane that would improve commercial air travel.

The four-year grant, now in its last year, is the largest that the university has ever received for a research project, according to Xenia Bixler, Cal Poly’s director of grants development.

NASA is best known for space missions. But it also has programs that are intended to improve aircraft travel to benefit the public more directly.

“NASA’s motivation is that they want us to improve efficiency with how airspace is used,” Marshall said.

Next month, Cal Poly’s new model will start 12 weeks of testing in a wind tunnel at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in the Bay Area. The model will be one-eleventh the size of an actual plane.

The Cal Poly model is made in the likeness of a 100-passenger plane, which is comparable to regional aircraft flown by commercial airlines.

The innovative design envisions the engines on top of the wings for lower noise output.

The plane also has slots in the wings that allow air to pass through and more quickly lift the plane off the ground. The slots can be closed when the plane is in the air for better wind resistance.

The concepts haven’t been used on commercial airplanes that are flying now. They involve careful engineering and technological constructions, Marshall said.

He said the new planes could make airport traffic more efficient because they would need only about two-thirds of the runway space to take off and land.

Marshall chuckled when mentioning the project’s long name — the Advanced Model for Extreme Lift and Improved Aeroacoustics. But there’s a good reason for it: The acronym AMELIA shares the name of his daughter.

The Cal Poly team working on AMELIA has included about 40 undergraduate and graduate students.

They have collaborated with acoustics experts at the Georgia Tech Research Institute to come up with the plane’s quiet design. The team will use acoustical instruments in Moffett Field’s wind tunnel to measure noise.

No airplane production company or individual has any plan yet to build an aircraft with the new design.

But the information will be made public on a website once the work is completed, Marshall said.

Cal Poly aerospace students Eric Paciano and Jonathan Lichtwardt are preparing for the model’s wind tunnel test.

“Without a doubt, the things I have learned on this project will be invaluable to me throughout my career as an engineer,” Lichtwardt said. “Working on such a large-scale project at such a young age is something that most people don’t get to encounter at any point in their careers.”