欧洲唯一设置有机场的大学-英国克兰菲尔德大学

编辑:给力英语新闻 更新:2018年1月13日 作者:马克·皮辛(Mark Piesing)

"点火!"尼克·劳森(Nick Lawson)坐在一架涡轮螺旋桨飞机的驾驶舱里大声喊道,随之我们乘坐的这架飞机咆哮着启动了。

从跑道上起飞没几分钟,这架古董飞机就爬上了13,000米的高空。劳森和副驾驶乔·布朗(Joe Brown)操作飞机完成了一次50度转弯。巨大的重力作用力把我从座椅上不断抛起和拉回,我感觉有点想哭又有点想吐。

这不是一次普通商业飞行。坐在我周围的是几位学生,他们手里紧紧抓住呕吐袋和笔记本。"飞行教授"劳森在英国学术界独树一帜,他不仅在大学负责可能决定未来航空业走向的研究项目,同时还是一位合格的商业航班飞行员。

飞机进入平飞状态后,他的学生放下手中的呕吐袋,拿起笔开始记录仪表板上显示的各项数据。

"你感觉如何?"劳森通过耳麦问我。不执飞商业航班时,他就在克兰菲尔德大学(Cranfield University)担任空气动力学和航空测量教授,同时还担任国立航空实验中心(National Flying Laboratory Centre)负责人。

位于伦敦以北64公里的克兰菲尔德大学和劳森一样独特——它是欧洲唯一一所拥有自己的机场和飞机机队的大学。

克兰菲尔德大学成立于1946年,最初校名为"航空学院"(College of Aeronautics)。当时创办这所学校的目的是为了和美国的加州理工学院(California Institute of Technology)和麻省理工学院(Massachusetts Institute of Technology)一较高下。

校园里有四座建于战争时期的巨大机库,提醒人们这片校园曾经是皇家空军克兰菲尔德基地(RAF Cranfield):二战时期的夜间战斗机基地。劳森的办公室位于跑道右侧的一座机库内部,大学的5座风洞也设在这里。

(图片来源: Cranfield University)
Cranfield University

明年,克兰菲尔德大学将建设第五座机库——这是总造价达6,500万英镑的数字化航空研究及技术中心(Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre)的一部分。这座中心由波音(Boeing)、萨博(Saab)和泰雷兹(Thales)等大企业提供资助,其使命在于促进英国在无人机、数字化航空管制和无人机民航应用等技术上的研究进展。

作为建设项目的一部分,老旧的二战时期机场将重新铺设地面,并将新增进近系统、一座数字化指挥塔台及先进雷达系统。

始建于1970年代的国立航空实验室(National Flying Laboratory)曾经把来自至少世界各地25所大学的1,200余名学生送上天空,从而培养他们设计未来的飞行器。英国大多数航空工程师都曾经在国立航空实验室接受过空中培训。

实验室还为罗尔斯-罗伊斯(Rolls-Royce)、BAE和空客英国(Airbus UK)等全球大型航空企业,以及一系列中小技术企业开展过研究工作。

返回地面后,在机库外飞机发动机发出的嗡嗡声中,劳森一边喝茶,一边解释他选择这一独特工作的原因。

"我是个飞行痴迷者,"他说。"我的办公室就在停机坪旁边,每天都会看到飞行员们钻进飞机飞上蓝天——这是一种无法抵御的诱惑。"

"两年后,我花在研究上的时间越来越少,文字工作上的时间越来越多。我逐渐无法忍受这种无聊的学术工作,然后决定辞职去当商业飞行员。"

后来,他有幸在全国航空实验室找到了一份能把研究和飞行结合起来的学术性工作。

劳森办公室的墙壁上挂着反映实验室发展历程的黑白照片。一幅照片上,机场停机坪上停满了飞机,其中包括两架"喷流"(Jetstreams)客机、三架"斗牛犬"(Bulldog)轻型教练机、以及克兰菲尔德A1飞机。克兰菲尔德A1是由克兰菲尔德大学的学生在"飞机设计"课程(这一课程目前仍然存在)的课堂上自行设计制造,但是目前的飞机设计完全由计算机以虚拟方式完成。

9月,BAE公司的工程师和克兰菲尔德大学"自动驾驶动力与控制"(Autonomous Vehicle Dynamics & Control)课程的学生们提出了一个无人驾驶飞机概念机设计,其总体结构介于固定翼和旋转翼构型之间,克兰菲尔德大学的航空研究专家们还设计了世界首创的"魔兽"无襟翼飞机,"魔兽"飞机采用数以百计的微小空气喷流控制其自身运动。

(因为前端外观造型类似人类臀部而)被戏称为"会飞的屁股"的登空者10号(Airlander 10)混合动力飞艇的设计方案首先在克兰菲尔德大学的风洞中进行测试,另外还测试了对于未来的无人驾驶飞机至关重要的"发现-规避"技术。

克兰菲尔德大学的机场位于伦敦北部郊区,于是成了躲避狗仔队偷拍的体育界名人的理想降落地点——对于名人明星这个群体而言,没什么比隐私更重要。

目前,国立航空实验室的机队规模不大,由一架"喷流"和两架老旧的"斗牛犬"组成。"斗牛犬"是一种单发教练机,其特点在于可以容纳并列双座的大型气泡式座舱。

教练机
克兰菲尔德大学拥有自属机队,机型包括"萤火虫"教练机(图片来源: Cranfield University)

一架"斗牛犬"飞机停在机库前方,浑身上下布满各种传感器,就像是贴在铝合金机翼上的补丁。

"我们预计,传感器全部工作正常后,只需完成一次低空通场飞行,就能测量到工业地区和垃圾填埋场的甲烷污染水平。"

劳森曾经的研究领域包括空气动力学和襟翼设计,但现在却专注于如何把先进光纤传感器整合入飞机机翼和直升机旋桨,从而使其能够在飞行过程中根据各类工况改变形状。

"使用复合材料制造飞机机翼和直升机桨叶,可以在制造过程中将传感器直接埋入其中,"他说。"于是你可以收集大量数据,对机翼和桨叶形状进行精细调整,这种调整哪怕在飞行过程中也可完成。"

这已经不是天方夜谭。劳森正在与空客合作开展一个名为Windy("风动设计方法论"缩写)的项目。

"我们把先进光纤传感器固定在风动模型上,提高了数据测量精度,"他说,"光纤系统的数据采集能力超过压力计、应变计等以往任何传感器。"

"下一步就是让这种技术走出风洞,在真实的飞机上开展飞行测试。"

劳森还计划与空客直升机公司合作。"我们希望把先进传感器整合入直升机桨叶,然后对直升机进行极限飞行性能测试,"他说。"这将使我们首次获得测量直升机桨叶形状的能力,如果你能测量桨叶形状,就能进行细化调整,甚至彻底改变桨叶设计。"

他还在和罗尔斯-罗伊斯公司合作,将先进传感器应用于后者未来的发动机。

然而,和其他很多研究项目一样,劳森面临的最大挑战之一就是找到资金支持和足够时间。

"航空实验室需要自行解决资金问题,这意味着要用'喷流'飞机进行试验,"他说。"现在,我们只有两名飞行员,很难抽出时间去搞研究。"

目前,国立航空实验室的收入来自克兰菲尔德大学为其学生的空中培训所支付的费用。在未来将通过提供机载测试平台服务获得额外收入。

数字化航空研究及技术中心建成后,劳森及其团队将开展新的研究项目,并使用新的飞机。他们计划用更大的ATR-42涡桨客机、空中国王350支线客机和Grob涡桨教练机替换"喷流"和"斗牛犬"飞机,后二者目前由英国军方用于飞行员训练。

克兰菲尔德
2018年,克兰菲尔德将落成第五座机库,这是总造价8,600万英镑改建工程的一部分(图片来源: Cranfield University)

劳森表示,一座拥有附属机场的大学对于测试新技术具有巨大吸引力。

"整个民航系统都非常保守,"劳森表示。"他们对新技术反应迟钝,这或许是缺乏研究场地的原因。"

"现在,有知名企业将其技术送到大学进行飞行测试,从而验证其在真实机场环境中的表现。我敢打包票,在整个英国,这是唯一一个适合的地点。"

参与测试的不仅有普通飞机,还有无人机。

劳森和我返回了停机坪。他指着一堵墙后面露出的黑色垂直尾翼。

这片垂尾属于一架2008年7月在多次实验中在完全无人介入的情况下飞行了1,290公里,从而创造了历史的一架飞机。这个实验项目名为"Astraea"。

国立航空实验室当时负责管理这架飞机,同时还和BAE公司联合开展了飞行测试。BAE公司则把这项研究延续到了今天,并最终发展成为为英国军方开发战斗无人机的计划。

对于这里的员工而言,国立航空实验室的最大魅力在于提供了振奋人心的飞行乐趣。

劳森及其团队正在测试新的无人机操控技术。

"我们将使用自身飞机测试4G网络在无人机导航方面的潜力,"飞行测试博士后研究员克里斯托弗·巴奈特(Christopher Bennett)表示。他将在一架飞机上安设传感器,测试能够保证无人机导航所需的下载速率。

尽管有这些先进技术的存在,但是对于这里的员工而言,国立航空实验室的最大魅力在于提供了振奋人心的飞行乐趣。

"这事关飞行精神,"主管飞行员兼"喷流"机长乔·布朗(Joe Brown)表示。他放弃了商业飞行员职业,到国立航空实验室继续自己的飞行生涯。"开商业客机要沿设定好的航路飞行,但在这里你可以随心所欲地飞。你可以沿50度的角度直刺蓝天。"

"如果你在商业航班上那样飞,那就等着被炒鱿鱼了。"

The university shaping aviation's future

“Ignition!” shouts Nick Lawson from the cockpit as the twin engines of the small turboprop airliner we are in roar into life.

Within minutes of taking off from the runway, the elderly aircraft has reached 45,000ft (13km). Lawson and fellow pilot Joe Brown throw the plane into a 50-degree turn. As I’m pushed down and back into my seat by the g-forces, I don’t know whether to cry or be sick.

This is no ordinary flight. Around me sit several students, clutching sick bags and notepads at the ready. Lawson – known as the “the flying professor” – is unique amongst British academics. He not only carries out university research that could shape the future of aviation, he is also a qualified commercial airliner pilot.

When the plane levels off, his students put down their sick bags and pick up their pens, scribbling down data from the digital displays in front of them.

“What do you think of that?” asks Lawson over the headset. When he isn’t flying commercial aircraft, Lawson is the professor aerodynamics and airborne measurement at Cranfield University and head of the National Flying Laboratory Centre.

Cranfield University, which is 40 miles (64km) or so north of London, is as unique as Lawson himself – it is the only university in Europe that has its own airport and air fleet.  

The College of Aeronautics, as the university was originally called, was founded in 1946 as a British rival to the California Institute of Technology (Caltec) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Four huge wartime hangars dominate its campus, a reminder that the university was built on the site of RAF Cranfield, a former World War Two night-fighter base. Lawson’s office is right next to the runway, suspended high up inside one of the old hangars, which also house the university’s five wind tunnels.

Next year, there may well be a fifth hangar at Cranfield – part of a £65m ($86m) investment to build the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre (Dartec). Funded by major companies like Boeing, Saab and Thales, Dartec is intended to spearhead the UK’s research on technologies like unmanned aircraft, digital air traffic control and the integration of drones into civilian airspace.

As part of the project, the old WWII airport will be resurfaced and equipped with new approach systems, a digital control tower and advanced radar systems.

First founded in the 1970s The National Flying Laboratory carries more than 1,200 aeronautical students from at least 25 universities around the world into the air. The aim is to help train them to design the aircraft of the future. Most of the UK’s aerospace engineers have flown with the NFL.

The Lab also carries out research for some of the world’s biggest aerospace companies, including Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Airbus UK, as well as smaller specialist firms.

Back on the ground, over a cup of tea and the whistle of turboprops outside, Lawson explains how he ended up in this unique job.

I decided to drop out and become a commercial pilot – Nick Lawson

“I always wanted to fly,” he says. “My office is right on the tarmac and every day I could see these guys getting into their planes and going flying – and in the end, I couldn’t resist.

“Then two years later I was getting disheartened by being an academic because I was spending less and less time on research and more and more time on paperwork. I decided to drop out and become a commercial pilot.”

Later, he was able to combine his research and his flying for the National Flying Laboratory in one academic role.

In Lawson’s office, black-and-white photographs on the walls show how the laboratory has evolved. They show the airfield apron crowded with aircraft. In one, two Jetstreams, three Bulldog light trainers and the Cranfield A1 are lined up in front of the hangar. The Cranfield A1 was designed and built at Cranfield by students on the Air Vehicle Design course which is still running, but today the designs are all done virtually on computers.

In September BAE engineers and students from Cranfield University’s course in Autonomous Vehicle Dynamics & Control unveiled a concept for an unmanned aircraft that alternates between fixed wing and rotary flight  Researchers from Cranfield also helped to design the world's first ''flapless'' plane called the Demon which uses hundreds of tiny air jets to control its movements

The design of the Airlander 10 ‘flying bum’ hybrid airship was first tested in the wind tunnels of the university as well as the ‘see and avoid’ technology vital for the unmanned aircraft of the future.

The airfield’s location just north of London also makes it perfect as a drop-off point for sports celebrities keen to escape the prying eyes of the paparazzi – the identity of whom are a closely guarded secret.

Today, the NFL has a more modest fleet, the mainstay of which is a single Jetstream and two elderly Bulldogs. The Bulldog is a single-engine trainer famous for its large bubble-like cockpit that can seat two people side by side.

In front of one of the hangars, one of the Bulldogs bristles with sensors that look a bit like they have been gaffer-taped on to the aluminium wings.

“We anticipate once the sensor is fully working, we should be able to detect local levels of methane pollution from industrial areas and refuse tips just by a low overflight,” says Lawson.

Lawson’s previous research has included the aerodynamics of flapping wings, but today he is focused on how the use of cutting-edge fibre-optic sensors could be used to create wings and helicopter blades that can adapt and change shape during flight.

“The use of composite materials would allow sensors to be embedded directly into wings and blades as they are manufactured,” he says. “You could then collect as much data as possible and fine-tune the design, even if they are already in the air.”

This is not theoretical science. Lawson is working with Airbus to do precisely this on a project called Project Windy – short for Wind Design Methodology.

Fibre-optic systems have the potential to outperform previous ways of collecting data like pressure or strain – Nick Lawson

“We are taking advanced fibre-optic sensors and putting them on wind tunnel models to measure data more accurately,” he says. “Fibre-optic systems have the potential to outperform previous ways of collecting data like pressure or strain.

“The next step is to take the technology out of the wind tunnel and put it on aircraft to do flight tests.”

Lawson is also looking at doing something similar with Airbus Helicopters. “We want to put advanced sensors on the rotors and then do a tethered flight of the helicopter,” he says. “This would allow you for the first time to measure the shape of the blade directly – and if you measure the shape of the blade you can refine it, and even change it.”

He is also working on a similar project with Rolls-Royce to use advanced sensors in their future engines.

But one of the biggest challenges Lawson faces these days – like many other academics – is finding money and time.

“The Flying Lab needs to pay for itself and that means flying the Jetstream,” he says. “Now we only have two pilots. It is harder to get time off to do research.”

Now, most of the NFL’s income comes from universities paying them to take their students into the air. In the future, the plan is to increase the amount of income from using the aircraft as airborne test platforms.

Potentially Dartec will change the research Lawson and his team can do, and the planes they fly. The plan is to replace the Jetstream and Bulldogs with a larger turboprop airliners like the ATR-42 or a King Air 350 regional airliners and Grob turbine trainers, the planes currently used to train British military pilots.

Lawson says the unique opportunities offered by a university with its own airfield also makes the site extremely attractive to those wanting to test new technologies.

“Air traffic systems are very conservative, and rightly so,” Lawson says. “They don’t embrace new technology very quickly, partly because there aren’t many places where they can do research. 

“Now we have big names bringing their technology to our university to fly and test systems to show how they work in a real airport environment. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the UK that can do this.”

It’s not only planes they will be testing, but also drones.

Back on the tarmac, Lawson points out to a black tailfin peeking out from behind a wall.

The aircraft it is attached to made history in July 2008 when it flew 800 miles (1,290 km) on a series of flights without any human intervention as part of a project known as Astraea.

The National Flying Laboratory managed the aircraft and jointly managed the flight trials with BAE Systems, which continue to this day as part of BAE’s programme to develop an unmanned combat aircraft for the UK military.

The main attraction for many of those working at the National Flying Laboratory is much more basic – the sheer joy of flying

Lawson and his team are also testing new ways of controlling unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).

“We are going to use our aircraft to test the potential for the 4G network to guide UAVs,” says Christopher Bennett, a post-doc research fellow, Flight Testing. He will be placing a sensor onto one of the aircraft to see if it is possible to get suitable download speeds while flying that a drone would need to navigate with.

Despite all the cutting-edge technology, the main attraction for many of those working at the National Flying Laboratory is much more basic – the sheer joy of flying.

“It’s all about airmanship,” explains Joe Brown, management pilot and Jetstream captain, who gave up his career as a commercial pilot to fly aircraft at the NFL. “When you pilot a commercial airliner, you have to fly on a predetermined route. Here you can decide where you fly. You can bank up to 50 degrees on our flights.

“If you did that on a commercial flight you would lose your job.”