Military helicopter creates spectacle at massive new engineering lab

Move-in day was a spectacle that attracted local media and others to the School of Engineering’s new Laboratory for Systems Integrity and Reliability in Metro Center, located along the Cumberland River near downtown Nashville.

The 20,000 square-foot high-bay facility – measuring 27 feet from floor to ceiling – now houses a CH-53A Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopter airframe and a full-scale wind turbine blade section. They were offloaded March 13 from specially-designed trailers, a day behind schedule due to high winds.


Directed by Doug Adams, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering and Distinguished Professor of civil engineering, the facility will enable researchers to test advanced sensor systems that can detect the earliest signs of failure in a variety of structures in the built environment, including aircraft, automobiles and wind turbines. LaSIR is set to open later this semester.

“The School is recognized as an international research leader in the theory and modeling of multi-scale systems and structures, their reliability and risk, but we were missing a lab like this to do experiments at full scale,” said Dean Philippe Fauchet. “This massive lab is helping us write a new chapter in the School of Engineering.”

Working with the Office of Naval Research, Adams’ team of researchers is developing innovative sensing technology for monitoring the health of lightweight composite materials that will be used in the next-generation CH-53K cargo aircraft being built by Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation.

“A sensor network and algorithms for data processing will be installed inside the CH-53A airframe and used to ‘listen’ for signs of damage in composite materials due to various sources,” said Adams, an internationally recognized expert in structural health monitoring.

“The challenge is that these new composite materials don’t dent like a metal. It they get struck there’s no visible signs of internal damage on the surface of the material.”

By using a full-scale test bed to demonstrate their structural health monitoring technology in a realistic setting, Adams’ team at Vanderbilt will be able to rapidly advance their research for use in practical applications. When implemented together with the Integrated Hybrid Structural Management System being developed by collaborators at Sikorsky, the Vanderbilt technology will help to significantly reduce the maintenance costs and downtime of this new lightweight naval aircraft.

“Future work at Vanderbilt University with the Office of Naval Research will contribute substantially to the vision of developing smarter and more resilient aircraft with an extremely challenging mission that can operate cost effectively. Also, this funding provides valuable scientific training and experiences for students at our country’s top universities,” said Malinda Pagett, research program officer, Office of Naval Research, Air Warfare and Naval Weapons.

The laboratory, which will hold more than $8 million in state-of-the-art instruments and equipment when completed, also will include a Hummer and a 550-square-foot wind turbine test chamber.

“Experiments on full-scale systems teach us what research is absolutely critical to make our technology work in a realistic setting. We want to use these big experiments to maximize the reliability and resilience of the infrastructure that all of us rely on in the energy, transportation, manufacturing, and security sectors,” Adams said.

Using sophisticated instruments, such as electro-hydraulic simulators, aerodynamic test rigs, a 3-D scanning laser velocimeter, and digital and infrared imaging systems, Adams and his students can quantify how materials and machines behave under realistic operating conditions.

“Vanderbilt is the only university I know of that will be searching for defects in real-world test articles like these at a speed of 1 million times each second,” Adams said. The velocimeter will allow researchers to scan a 140-foot-long aircraft in minutes and find defects that are less than 1-inch in diameter in lightweight composite materials — even when those defects are hidden deep beneath the skin of the material. He’ll also combine these sophisticated measurements with computer simulations to pinpoint the very origins of failure in engineered systems.

Adams said the lab also will have machine tools and equipment to design and build test fixtures. “By working with students and colleagues across the school of engineering, LaSIR aims to  design a new generation of intelligent infrastructure that is safer and more cost effective to sustain.”