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Smart planes

Reaching new heights at aerospace research hub
By: Wendy Glauser, Journalism '05
January 17, 2019
Fengfeng (Jeff) Xi in the airline cabin with researchers behind him testing ways to improve comfort on a plane

Aerospace engineering professor Fengfeng (Jeff) Xi in the airline cabin: investigating ways to improve comfort for passengers. Photograph by Sandy Nicholson.

Imagine what air travel might look like in 20 years: sitting back against a seat that senses where you need more support and adjusts accordingly, looking up at an LED screen and seeing the stars above, the sounds of crying babies and the roaring engine becoming imperceptible, thanks to next-level noise control.

Ryerson researchers and students – from aerospace engineers to interior designers to architects – are already working to make the next-generation air flight a reality. Their research got a major boost this past summer with the donation of a 40-foot airline cabin from Bombardier, now being housed at the Downsview Aerospace Hub in northern Toronto. The gift is further supported by a multimillion dollar grant from Bombardier and investments from government organizations and the private sector.

“More and more, airlines are trying to compete by improving the travel experience,” says Fengfeng (Jeff) Xi, a Ryerson aerospace engineering professor and the lead on the cabin project. “When you look at traveller comfort, you have two main issues. One is the body’s sensations and the other one is state of mind, how you react to what’s happening around you.”

By partnering with a range of Ryerson experts in interior design, architecture, psychology, aerospace engineering, and human factor research, the research collaboration aims to improve both physical and psychological comfort in flying. This allows the group to answer interdisciplinary questions, such as what qualities of light reduce stress? And how much head room is needed to provide a feeling of calm?

The cabin research will build on Ryerson’s completed airplane design projects. For the last two years, thanks to support from a Collaborative Research and Design grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, funding from Bombardier, and partnerships with researchers at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University, Xi and a team of Ryerson researchers have designed and built an interactive smart seat, window and lighting module.

The seat has sensors that detect where pressure needs to be increased or decreased to provide ergonomic support. A series of connected air pockets then inflate and deflate accordingly. Speakers positioned on either side of the headrest emit sound waves that oppose the incoming frequencies of engine noise and cancel it out. The smart window can adjust the tinting and glare, depending on whether the passenger indicates they would like to read, sleep or watch a movie.

In addition to testing the smart seat and window module in the cabin, Ryerson researchers will also be looking at ways to improve the overall cabin. Interdisciplinary teams are exploring the idea of overhead LED screens that could project the night sky above and seats that can collapse down when more storage space is necessary. Xi expects the research project will take five years to complete. Ontario’s Ministry of Research and Innovation is funding the purchase of equipment and technology for inside the cabin.

Jonathan Hack, manager of advanced interiors and systems for the Strategic Technologies Group at Bombardier, says that the company decided to donate to Ryerson due to the “great working relationship” that had already been established.

“Any time you have an idea for a new project or initiative, Ryerson is willing to help you,” he says.

Hack has high hopes for the research collaboration, which continues thanks to a recent $1 million contribution from Bombardier to Ryerson and U of T towards work at the Downsview Research Hub.

“We’re looking at everything from advances in cabin air quality to advancing new and more lightweight materials,” he says.

Paul Walsh, an aerospace engineering professor who has been instrumental to the Downsview Research Hub as well as the Bombardier partnership, says the cabin donation allows researchers to go beyond computer modelling to simulate real-world experiments. “We can confirm how air is moving through the cabin, and how particulate matter is disseminated,” he explains. “And we can do the same for sound and heat.” While the experiments sound high-level, they can result in direct benefits to air quality and passenger comfort.

As passengers push back against the move toward compact seating arrangements, Walsh says that airlines are looking for ways to maximize the feeling of openness. “If you make it feel like it’s a bigger cabin, you can mitigate the effects of the small cabin size,” he says.

This story appears in the January edition of the Ryerson University Magazine. Read the whole issue, external link online: It's available as an accessible digital edition, external link and a mobile edition, external link.

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