Our high-flying engineering students

Our amazing Aerospace Engineering students have been taking to the skies during their work with Gravity Industries.

PhD students Abhishek Gautam and Lewis Munshi, and five undergraduate students from the Aerospace department have had the amazing opportunity to work on flight dynamics, wing design and developing a jet suit exoskeleton for Gravity Industries. Truly putting engineering theory into practice.

The new race for space: the next 50 years

20 July 2019 marks 50 years since man walked on the moon. But what about the next 50? We spoke to Professor Lucy Berthoud about space tourism, life on Mars and her enduring fascination with space exploration.

It’s 50 years since US astronaut Neil Armstrong took his first ‘small step’ on the moon, and as he poignantly stated at the time, the Apollo 11 Moon landing was unquestionably a giant leap for mankind. Half a century on as a spacefaring species, government-funded programs have seen us inhabit a space station, master low-Earth orbit and make incredible strides in the development of satellite technology. But, in terms of the advancement of space exploration, what will the next 50 years bring us? What will be happening in the skies above us in 2069?

Space holiday

Bristol University’s Professor Lucy Berthoud, a lecturer within the Faculty of Engineering who teaches the space aspects of the Aerospace Engineering degree, believes it could be a great deal.

“Hopefully, in a few years, people will be travelling in low earth orbit just as frequently as they travel now on commercial aircraft.”

Musk’s commercial SpaceX ‘Crew Dragon’ spacesuit and capsule

“In the short term, we will see the establishment of space tourism in low earth orbit and if they can manage the safety aspects, hopefully, in a few year’s time, people will be travelling in low earth orbit just as frequently as they travel now on commercial aircraft.” Space tourism is space travel for recreational purposes – and the possibilities, including orbital, suborbital and lunar, are seemingly endless. It is no wonder, then, that it is an area of great interest to a new breed of space entrepreneur, with dot.com billionaires such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos investing heavily.

Another field where the technology is currently evolving before our eyes is in the development of reusable rockets. Indeed, space companies are ploughing millions into this area with the promise of huge rewards. The prospect of sending rockets into space and then bringing them back to Earth is a tantalising one. As Professor Berthoud attests: “Being able to recover rockets is a necessity in terms of making space tourism financially viable.” At the moment, sending a rocket to the International Space Station costs in the region of £48 million and each rocket can only be used once. Bezos, founder of spaceflight company Blue Origin, famously compared this to using a Boeing 747 to fly across the country once and then throwing the plane away. He has a point.

Galactic gas stations

You would think that predicting long-term developments in space technology is a much more difficult prospect, but this doesn’t faze Professor Berthoud one bit. “There’s a path you have to follow for space exploration. It’s an obvious progression, we’re nothing if not logical in my industry!”

Astronaut Raja Chari tests out deep-space habitat prototype

The first mid to long-term development she expects to see is an inhabited base on the Moon. “There is debate as to whether it should be the Moon or Mars,” she states. “But it seems to me that the Moon would be a strong progression. It’s much closer, comparatively simpler to resupply and if things did go wrong, it’s easier to get people back. Mars is a much higher risk.” Professor Berthoud’s comments link closely to the Deep Space Gateway, a proposed NASA programme that would bring astronauts to the moon to operate a cis-lunar space station. The concept has generated a wealth of research since 2017, especially because NASA’s stated goal, under the current Trump administration, is to return to the moon before going to Mars.

According to Professor Berthoud, other possibilities include the mining of the asteroids (“That has to be done”), the establishment of fuel depots in space – the so-called ‘galactic gas stations’ – as well as the research and exploration of exoplanets, the bodies beyond our own solar system.

“In terms of the next 50 years, discovering life remains the biggest milestone of them all.”

Primarily, she believes that looking for life on other planets remains the ultimate goal. “It’s clearly challenging and deeply difficult to establish whether there is life. For instance, recent research indicates that there is an underwater lake under the ice near the south pole of Mars, which could be a suitable place for life to develop. Mars is fascinating. In terms of the next 50 years, discovering life remains the biggest milestone of them all.”

Space, Inc.

The sustained activity and increasing investment in the fantastic potential of space from both government agencies and Silicon Valley billionaires such as Musk and Bezos is welcome. The growth in the ‘everyday’ applications of space means that a lot more people can now readily see the benefits of space.

“I’ve seen a real surge of interest from students,” says Professor Berthoud. “Whereas previously somewhere in the region of 10 per cent of the aerospace engineering students would be interested in space, in the last few years, it has really jumped. These days, in the region of half the class would like to work on space projects if they can.”

“The space industry is no longer deemed to be a space-agency-dominated world, but rather an exciting commercial industry.”

But why the surge of interest? “Students are regarding space much more like an industry. Even some of my entrepreneurial students who wouldn’t have typically particularly leaned towards space are now doing so because it is no longer deemed to be a space-agency-dominated world, but rather an exciting commercial industry.”

Indeed, these are exciting times at the University of Bristol in terms of space research, with the opening of a new state-of-the-art satellite laboratory and ground station. As Professor Berthoud explains: “The lab enables students to work on University of Bristol space missions with the design and testing of our own satellites. The ground station can track satellites in orbit, and, in theory, we will be able to talk to the astronauts on the International Space Station.”

Lucy in the sky

Lucy living out her childhood fantasies

This shift in perception of space as a commercial opportunity as opposed to the impossible stuff of dreams is something Professor Berthoud has observed closely over her career in the space industry. But what was the initial inspiration behind her fascination with space?

“When I was a kid, I really loved science fiction and so I decided I wanted to be an astronaut at the age of 11! The idea of working in space and on another planet seemed to be too good to be true. I was also fascinated by how things work and so that led me to choose engineering as a career. I really like the exploration part of space, because it appealed to the adventurous side of me.”

Now, as an inspiration to her own engineering students, Lucy hopes they will help develop the technologies, vehicles and infrastructure needed to power the next 50 years of space exploration.

 

Academic profile

Name: Dr Lucy Berthoud MEng (Bristol) PhD (Toulouse)
Title: Professor of Space Engineering
Courses: MEng Aerospace Engineering

Background: Professor Berthoud has worked for 25 years in Spacecraft research and in industry. She started out with a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Bristol, then went to Toulouse where she studied for a PhD in Space Physics at Sup’Aero/ONERA (French National Research Organisation). She then did post-doctoral fellowships at the European Space Agency and NASA Johnson Space Centre. In 2009, Dr Berthoud started teaching at the University of Bristol and is now a Professor of Space Systems Engineering in the Aerospace Engineering department.

Gulliver’s travels: can drones learn from nature?

Unmanned aerial vehicles are rarely out of the headlines. The world’s first driverless passenger drone has already been tested in China, and major companies have begun trialling drone deliveries to customers.

But despite this huge acceleration in popularity there’s a number of challenges which drone manufacturers are facing, not least the matter of urban drone navigation. To investigate this problem, PhD students Cara Williamson and Anouk Spelt are studying urban gulls to understand the most efficient flight paths through urban landscapes. We spoke to Cara to learn more about their project.

Drones could benefit society in so many ways, from the obvious, such as parcel delivery, to the life-changing, such as being the first point of contact for emergency services.

“The Urban Gull Project was started in 2016 by myself and Anouk Spelt as part of our PhD research. We’re supervised by Dr Shane Windsor who won a grant to start the Bio-Inspired Flight Lab.  Over millions of years, nature has optimised for every environment – urban gulls are particularly adept at coping with the complex wind flows around city buildings. UAVs could use similar flight strategies. Drones could benefit society in so many ways, from the obvious, such as parcel delivery, to the life-changing, such as being the first point of contact for emergency services.

Computational model of wind flow over buildings

“The project brings together biology and engineering, using GPS devices on 11 lesser black-backed gulls in Bristol. The tiny backpacks (under 3% of the bird’s weight) track location, altitude, speed and 3D acceleration data which tells us whether the birds are soaring or flapping.  Preliminary research showed how gulls position themselves in updrafts on the windward side of buildings to improve control and mitigate risks from gusts. These wind-highways help them maintain altitude so they can soar for a third of their flight time.  We’re now seeing that gulls choose routes to foraging grounds that save them energy, even if they are twice the shortest distance.

Battery life is a big problem for drones. Batteries are heavy and limit their range and endurance.

“The wind modelling and path planning method I’ve been using is very quick and could be run in advance of a UAV making a delivery, for example, in order to pick a route that keeps energy costs to a minimum. Battery life is a big problem for drones. Batteries are heavy and limit their range and endurance.

Tracking gull flight around Bristol.

“We collect habitat and weather data in and around Bristol. It’s the perfect location as it combines a diverse built environment with an established gull population. Over the last few decades, the birds’ distribution has moved away from traditional seaside haunts. It’s thought that cities offer warmer temperatures, protected nesting sites and rich pickings from our litter. Anouk compares the gulls’ foraging behaviour and energetic costs with their rural cousins to establish what is really going on.  Despite being referred to as seagulls, our birds don’t visit the sea at all during breeding season (March-August), which is why we use the term urban gulls (first coined by our collaborator and South West gull expert of over 30 years, Pete Rock).

Cara and Anouk present their projects.

“Having followed the gulls for three years, we’ve seen a gull laying an egg, held hatching eggs and watched chicks taking their first flight. Our work has taken us to the top of landfills, quarries, the waste treatment centre and up many tall buildings and church spires. The gulls have distinct traits – we even named some of them after our favourite Game of Thrones characters; Arya (quite feisty – tried to peck us); Sansa (the most beautiful); Lady Brienne (the largest) and Tyrion (the smallest). We also got very attached to the first season’s chicks and learnt the hard way that nature can be quite brutal. It would be good to mend the human-gull relationship. We want to get the message out that when animals thrive in the environments we create, they can teach us so much. It’s vital to study and conserve the natural world.

“At the moment, we’ve got a packed programme of workshops in schools. Pupils design and fly drones and find out about bio-inspired engineering and wind pattern modelling.  We’ve had some really encouraging feedback and we hope we’ve inspired a new generation of kids to take STEM subjects that they wouldn’t have previously considered.  We were really pleased that this outreach programme was recognised when the project was shortlisted for the 2018 Airbus Diversity Awards.”