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Avionics vortex project

Blue lines show tracking satellites and a red ribbon shows the path the aircraft has flown, also indicating areas of potential wake turbulence. The lower right corner shows a pilot's "heads up" display view.

Photo courtesy of: Russ College of Engineering and Technology

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Two computer science students are finalists in national collegiate inventors competition


Two Ph.D. students at Ohio University's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology have qualified as one of seven finalist teams in the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition (CIC).

Scott Nykl and Chad Mourning, both computer science doctoral candidates, will travel to the national judging on Nov. 12 in Washington, D.C. to present their project on aircraft wake-avoidance technology for a chance to win up to $15,000.

The CIC is holding undergraduate and graduate competitions to promote exploration in invention, science, engineering, technology and other creative endeavors and provides a window on the technologies that will benefit society in the future.

According to Nykl, aircraft in flight create a turbulent vortex at each wingtip known as a wake vortex. These vortices — essentially invisible, horizontal tornadoes — are a grave threat to smaller aircraft, especially during landing and takeoff.

"The vortices are powerful enough to literally tear small planes into pieces. We've created an instrument that helps pilots avoid them," he said.

Michael Braasch, Thomas Professor of Engineering, initiated the project based on his own experiences as a pilot of small aircraft.

"On a number of occasions, I was landing my small, single-engine aircraft behind a 747 or a 757. The air traffic controllers cautioned me about the presence of wake turbulence, but I was frustrated at not having a good way to know if I was above the turbulence or not – and staying above the path of the previously landing aircraft is the best way to avoid the wake," Braasch explained. "A few years ago, I asked Chad and Scott to design a display that pilots could use."

Nykl and Mourning, who have built, flown and validated their prototype, have also started a business to market their technologies. They hope to extend the technology to general aviation and gain approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Commercial air travel is already the safest method of transportation per passenger mile, but millions of people are still afraid to fly," Mourning said. "I hope that by incorporating more and more safety devices like this, we can provide a little comfort and increase quality of life."