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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Saving air travelers lives on the ground

URI mechanical engineering students refine 'Wingman'

The “Wingman’’ is taking off in a new direction.

Mechanical engineering students at the University of Rhode Island have refined a device created by students two years ago that can prevent wingtips on planes from colliding while the aircrafts are being towed on the ground.

The device—now called the Wingman 360—has caught the attention of Delta Airlines, which is so interested in the project it has agreed to field test a prototype of the design.

“This is an incredible opportunity for our students,’’ says Bahram Nassersharif, a URI engineering professor who is overseeing the project. “The students are not only learning about aviation and airport operations, but also about creating a new device that has the potential to significantly mitigate on-ground aircraft collisions and wing damage during maintenance operations.”

The 5-pound, plastic device temporarily attaches to a plane’s wingtip with suction cups. Ultrasonic sensors in the device detect when the aircraft is getting perilously close to another plane on the ground or the wall of a hangar as it’s being towed.

In 2014, URI engineering students created a device, but it was only capable of a maximum detection angle of 90 degrees and suitable for small planes, not large aircraft. (The device was so highly regarded it won first place in a national Federal Aviation Administration competition.)

Wingman 360 has a 180-degree field of view, making it even more effective. The device is also versatile; it can be mounted on different areas of the wingtip. Plus, the price is right: $2,200 for two devices—one for each wingtip—and a module.

The new system offers a different way of signaling a possible wingtip mishap. The old device emitted warning lights and sounds, which had to be seen by the worker towing the aircraft. Wingman 360 sends a signal to a module, or box, on the tug’s dashboard, triggering a buzzer and lights.

“In the past, airline workers needed to be physically looking at the wing to see the lights,’’ says Laura Corvese, of Portsmouth, a senior engineering student working on the project. “You can imagine how hard that would be to manage. It would be very difficult to tow an airplane and look at the wings at the same time.’’

The device would not be permanently attached to the plane. Workers would put it on the aircraft’s wingtips when a plane is being moved to a hangar.

Corvese and three other mechanical engineering majors on “Project Runway’’—Mitchell Contente of Bristol, Cody McMillian of Portsmouth and Gilbert Resto of Providence—created the project for their senior capstone design project, a yearlong class that requires students to solve real-world problems with viable products. Nassersharif taught the class.

“We took a lot of the students’ creative ideas from two years ago and used them in a different way,’’ says Corvese. “One of the major changes is that the new device is better for bigger planes.’’

Resto, who did much of the electrical work and coding for the device, says it was exciting as a college student to work with Delta Airlines, an international company: “It’s a great opportunity to have a hands-on experience and apply everything I’ve learned in my undergraduate career. I can use that experience when I apply for jobs.’’

Contente agreed: “This capstone project is invaluable. It taught us how to see a design through from beginning to end—from early concepts to the final production model,’’ says Contente, who found a job after graduation at Sensata, an engineering firm in Attleboro, Mass. 

Delta learned about the 2014 Wingman last year and reached out to URI, for good reason: Aircraft wingtip collisions and damages are costly for airlines. Impressed with the students’ work, the airlines decided to sponsor the capstone design program for mechanical engineering.

Collaborating with Delta has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the students say. Delta representatives visited the URI students on campus, and the students toured the company’s headquarters in Atlanta, where they met with top engineers and learned about aviation design.

“Our Wingman has the potential to be something very big,’’ says Corvese, who plans to attend Boston University in the fall to pursue her master’s degree in mechanical engineering and robotics. “It’s amazing to think that something I worked on with my team of friends might actually be used on a national level.’’

The prototype will be finished at the end of the month. The students are expected to test the device on a large aircraft, possibly at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick. 

“We’ve taken this from a concept to a design to a build in less than a year,’’ says McMillian, who landed a job in the fall with Raytheon. “To see it in action so soon will be really rewarding.’’

The students will present a poster about their project during the American Society for Engineering Education Northeast Conference April 28 through 30 on the Kingston campus. The conference topic this year is “Revolutionizing Engineering Education.’’

“Experiences like this capstone project are revolutionizing engineering education at URI,’’ says Nassersharif. “It’s incredible for our students to be on the leading edge of aviation design.’’

Pictured above: The “Project Runway’’ team of University of Rhode Island engineering seniors, left to right: Mitchell Contente; design engineer; Gilbert Resto, electrical design engineer; Laura Corvese, team leader; and Cody McMillian, financial analyst. 
Photo courtesy of URI engineering professor Bahram Nassersharif.