A team of engineering students at the University of Southampton is testing a new wingsuit design with which they hope to break all existing world records for height, speed and distance with a jump from over 45,000ft. BILL READ, FRAeS reports
Testing the Icarus wingsuit over the Algave. (University of Southampton)
It has always been a human dream to be able to fly like a bird. With the development of the wingsuit, this dream has come closer to reality. Unlike hang-gliders or ultralights which still need the pilot to sit inside an aircraft, a wingsuit (as its name implies) is clothing you can fly. As well as covering the wearer’s body, a wingsuit has extra fabric under the arms for wings and between the legs for the tail. The wearer controls the flight performance of the suit through their physical movements. Unlike a powered aircraft or even a glider, a wingsuit is not capable of sustained flight and can only descend in a controlled manner before deploying a parachute.
First developed in 1990s, wingsuits have already set a number of impressive records. The current world record for flight duration was set by Colombian skydiver Jhonathan Florez in 2012 with a time of nine minutes and six seconds. Florez also holds the record for the highest altitude wingsuit jump of 11,358m (37,265ft). The record for highest speed achieved was set by Japanese wingsuit pilot Shin Ito with a speed of 363km/h (226mph) while the distance record is 18.26 miles which was set by Andy Stumpf in 2011.
However, all these records may be consigned to the history books if the University of Southampton’s Icarus project achieves its aim - which is to develop the world’s first scientifically engineered wingsuit to set new world records for human flight. Named the Icarus Project, the university intends to use the customised wingsuit to set new records for flying from the highest altitude (45,000ft), at the highest speed and travelling the furthest total distance.
The Icarus wingsuit project is part of the university’s fourth year Group Design Project for MEng Aeronautics and Astronautics students. Taking part this year are nine students from the Aeronautics and Astronautics degree programme who are studying a range of subjects from aerodynamics to air vehicle systems. The objectives of the project are to:
- Inspire school and university students to consider careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics)
- Provide a unique applied learning experience for students as part of a dedicated team, representing the university at an international level
- Make significant scientific advances in aerodynamics and testing whilst pushing the boundaries of technical accomplishment in wingsuits
- To engage the public and showcase the university research outputs on technical, sensational yet relatable subject
Dr Angelo Niko Grubišic and the Icarus wingsuit at the 2016 Farnborough Air Show. (University of Southampton)
The Icarus wingsuit is going to be flown by the project supervisor Dr Angelo Niko Grubišic. Dr Grubisic is a Lecturer in Astronautics and Advanced Propulsion at the university’s Faculty of Engineering and the Environment. He is also a specialist in the development and testing of advanced propulsion systems for spacecraft, as well as selective laser melting as applied to additive manufacturing. Angelo previously worked as a consultant AIT and Systems Engineer for QinetiQ where he was responsible for the development of the T6 Solar Electric Propulsion System on the +£1.1bn ESA BepiColumbo Mission to Mercury. In addition to his scientific achievements, Dr Grubišic is also an experienced wingsuit base jumper, kite surfer, windsurfer, scuba-diver, snowboarder, motor racer, triathlete and wakeboarder. He was also a candidate in the European Astronaut Selection Programme to become the UK’s first astronaut but was beaten by Tim Peake.
Initial computer simulation of the wingsuit design. (University of Southampton)
Designing a wingsuit for a jump from 45,000ft which will cover 20-25 miles has posed a number of technical and physiological challenges. The jump will be difficult and dangerous. The descent is expected to last around 15min during which time Angelo will not only descend 45,000ft but also travel 20-25 miles. The first challenge is that the suit and its wearer will encounter very low atmospheric pressures (140mbar) which is only 14% of that experienced at ground level and well into pressure suit territory. There is also the risk from water starting to vapourise after at low pressure, causing, swelling, bruising and embolisms with the risk of decompression sickness and hypoxia. To counter this, Angelo will have to use HALO (high altitude low opening) oxygen gear. Secondly, there is the problem of temperature. The background temperature will be around -55°C but this will be further reduced to approximately -110°C by windchill. In addition to this, the suit will also have to be able to cope with very high flight speeds in excess of 280mph. As well as coping with these factors, the wingsuit design also has to have enough room to allow for a human to fit inside and be able to fly faster and further than any previous designs.
3D kinetic energy simulations. (University of Southampton)
Before creating the wingsuit, the team studied the aerodynamics and flight mechanics that the suit will have to deal with. To speed up the design process the team used computer simulations to experiment with different configurations to see how they would perform without having to construct an actual suit. This ‘virtual wingsuit’ was tested in different body positions, angles-of-attack and flight speeds. An important part of the design was the planform shape of the wingsuit and the team looked at different aerofoil shapes to try and maximise its performance. To assist with the design, the Icarus team worked with project supporter OR3D to create 3D dynamic laser scanned models of a wingsuit. The students than used computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to run 3D simulations of wingsuits in flight which showed the pressure distribution on the upper and lower surfaces which can be used to make design improvements. One challenge of the challenges for the CFD simulation was that wingsuits are soft, elastic aerofoils with an undefined shape. However, using exceptionally fast capture speeds, the team was able to capture the complete wingsuit geometry in around eight seconds.
The data for the CFD models was created from 3D CAD scans of windsuits tested in the R J Mitchell wind-tunnel at the University. (University of Southampton)
The next task was to increase the wingsuit’s lift-to-drag ratio so that it would fly further. Wingsuits fly using the same characteristics as wings by generating a pressure difference between the front and back of the suit which acts over the suit to create lift. The initial wingsuit design was tested in the R. J. Mitchell wind-tunnel using a specially designed fixed test rig developed by Aeronautics and Astronautics student Jennifer Crunden as part of her third year thesis. The pilot was secured into a six-axis force sensor to measure the lift, drag forces and moment of the wingsuit at various airspeeds in the wind tunnel. The team also developed a free flight rig which allowed the pilot to fly freely inside the horizontal wind tunnel via a single tether which can replicate more closely the flight performance of the suit.
To replicate both the cold temperatures and high flight speeds that the pilot will experience, additional climatic tests were carried out in the University of Ontario Climatic wind tunnel. This tunnel can simulate air speeds of over 250km/h at temperatures of -40°C and can test whether the wingsuit and supporting thermal gear is capable of preventing hypothermia or frostbite for the duration of the flight through the lower stratosphere and upper troposphere without the benefit of a pressure suit. These tests were performed with the free flight test rig, allowing real flight for the duration of the tests. In addition to these tests, Dr Grubisic has undergone a number of training exercises in a hypobaric chamber to learn how to cope with low levels of pressure and oxygen. This part of the project also looked at the effects of oxygen deprivation on human physiology and the ability of the pilot to cope under such conditions.
The Athena helmet
The Athena aerodynamic helmet on display at Farnborough Air Show. (University of Southampton)
In conjunction with project partner Boardyard, the Icarus team also designed a special 'Athena' aerodynamic helmet which Angelo will wear during the flight and which was tested in the skies over the Algave in Spain. “The helmet is surprisingly quiet, has better visual field than any helmet the pilot had tried and produced super nice openings,” says Angelo. “The tail sits away from the reserve tray and looking up at a canopy is easy.” The helmet is also fitted with a head-up display developed with US partner FlySight which includes a telemetry and navigation system to help track airspeed and glide ratio throughout the flight. The helmet is also fitted with a large handle for quick release for the visor if case the pilot is in a situation where he can’t feel his hands.
As part of its outreach objective the Icarus project has also been promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) among schools and universities. The project has also developed a Physics of Flight Workshop for school children to be held at Airkix Indoor Skydiving Basingstoke where the team members will explain basic aerodynamics, followed by a tunnel flight experience. In addition, the Icarus team is promoting the project at events such as the Cheltenham Science Festival, Southampton Science and Engineering Festival and other similar events. For more information see: http://www.airkix.com/book-flights/schools/icarus-flight-school.aspx
Getting ready to jump
Test jump for the Athena Aero Helmet. (University of Southampton)
The project is running from October 2015 to October 2016. The first four months up to February were taken up with design and manufacturing, followed by initial wind-tunnel testing in March. This was followed by hypoxia training and initial test jumps from 15,000ft in May at the Netheravon Drop Zone near Salisbury which progressed up to 20,000ft. These jumps are designed to test the safety procedures, stability and performance of the new flight suit. Following these initial tests, there have been HALO (high altitude low opening) jumps from 35,000ft to test the wingsuit, navigation, telemetry and the pilot, including pre-breathing oxygen for a few hours to allow dissolved nitrogen to escape from his bloodstream prior to flight and the storage of bottled oxygen in the wingsuit. These jumps also recorded medical data, such as O2 blood concentration, heart rate and core/extremity temperature.
The project will then culminate with the record-breaking jump from over 40,000ft in October.