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This story is the first in a three-part series on the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies, produced over the winter and spring of 2016.

From the rise of drones to the push for greener planes, the world of aeronautics and space has changed dramatically in the past decade, and Professor David Zingg has had a front-row seat. Zingg is celebrating 10 years as Director of the University of Toronto’s Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), and has spent more than 25 summers conducting collaborative research at the NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. As he nears the end of his term at UTIAS, he sat down with writer Tyler Irving for a chat about the past, present and future of aerospace research and education at U of T.

What kind of research does UTIAS do, and how has its focus changed over the past decade?

We conduct a broad range of both fundamental and applied research. For example, we have a huge strength in studying combustion: understanding exactly how fuels burn and what the implications are for emissions, efficiency, etc. Through this fundamental work, we can help aerospace companies push the limits of combustion engine performance.

Recently, we’ve gained a great deal of expertise in mobile robotics and autonomy, enabling robots to sense their surroundings and react accordingly. The original motivation for this had to with planetary rovers, like those used on NASA’s Mars missions. But here on earth we also have robots working in mines or underwater, or other places where it’s too dangerous for humans to go.

Another big application of robotics is self-driving cars; many top companies are hiring people to work on that right now. Finally, we consider unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) to be flying robots, so there is a lot of work on that area as well.

Your own area of research is sustainable aviation. What are the big questions in that field?

The biggest negative impact of aviation is the production of CO2 and the impacts on climate change. Our work looks at how we can reduce the carbon footprint. One way to do this is through aerodynamic shape optimization to reduce drag, or through new more efficient aircraft configurations like truss-braced wings. We are working with Bombardier on designing planes to significantly reduce fuel consumption and hence emissions.

Another approach is active flow control: this means using actuators to influence the way air flows around an object, for example, by making the flow smoother and reducing drag. Together with UTIAS colleague Phil Lavoie, I have a collaboration with Airbus looking at this.

Finally, I think we’ll see a lot more planes being partially powered by biofuels in the future. It’s important to remember that the time from concept to first flight is 10 to 15 years, and an airplane might last 30 years or more. So it will take a long time for these innovations to become apparent and it is urgent that we develop them now.

How has the rise of drones affected UTIAS?

UAVs — including both rotary-wing aircraft like quadcopters and fixed-wing aircraft that can fly farther — have huge potential. They could be used for pipeline inspections, medicine delivery to remote communities, border security, surveillance, tracking forest fires, agriculture and lots more.

With all of these drones in action, we are likely going to need some kind of collision avoidance system. We can’t rely strictly on pilots for that; the drones themselves will have to have an ability to sense and evade danger. The autonomy research we are doing will help with that.

The major challenge with UAVs right now is regulation: the FAA and Transport Canada need to come up with a set of rules that will govern how drones can be used. There’s a huge civil UAV market ready to flourish once that gets settled.

How else has UTIAS changed over the last decade?

We have basically doubled the number of graduate students and hired nine new professors in the last 10 years, which is very exciting. We’ve had very strong applications from places like MIT, ETH Zurich, and DLR, which is Germany’s NASA. Many are people who grew up in Canada, studied abroad and then came back, so we have a very diverse set of experiences.

As in the past, many of our graduates are hired by large companies such as Pratt & Whitney, Bombardier and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. But lately, many have also gone to work for smaller companies, for example in the UAV space. There’s a Canadian company called SolarShip that builds hybrid aircraft to service remote areas, and which has hired a few of our recent grads. And as I mentioned, our graduates are very popular with the handful of companies doing research on self-driving cars.

What industries does UTIAS partner with?

We have extremely strong relationships with the large industry players in Canada: MDA, Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney Canada. We’re also forging new links with UAV companies through our Centre in Aerial Robotics Research and Education, launched earlier this year. More broadly, the trend has been toward working with international organizations and companies, which is strengthened by having so many young professors with connections outside of Canada.

Finally, we are in the midst of a major initiative in partnership with Bombardier and Centennial College: we’ve formed the Downsview Aerospace Innovation and Research consortium. Our goal is to create a major aerospace research hub at Downsview Park, where academia and industry could work together on collaborative research.

What’s the most exciting part of your work?

It’s very fulfilling to help young people get started in their careers. I also believe strongly in the value of aviation, and I believe that climate change is a serious problem, so I’m motivated to address both of those things. But I also enjoy the challenge of solving a mathematical puzzle, and in my work that is how you come up with new and better solutions.

I’ve been very fortunate to spend really most of my time as a researcher in two places: NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and UTIAS. At both of those organizations, you find people with strong fundamental knowledge who are very generous with their time and ideas. When you put those qualities together, it’s a winning combination, and that’s what makes these places so special.

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