Icy Flight

When American Eagle flight 4184 crashed near Roselawn, IN, in 1994, having accumulated a fatal amount of ice on its wings, aeronautics engineer Michael Bragg set out to make sure such accidents didn’t happen again. Bragg and his team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have since developed a smart icing system that does more than just alert the pilot when ice accumulates on the plane, as current instruments do. Sensors characterize how the ice buildup on the wings or tail is affecting the plane’s aerodynamics. If onboard heaters can’t melt away all the ice, Bragg’s system will tell the pilot how to compensate to maintain control and stability. The system consists of neural-network-based software that collects information from the sensors and translates the data into particular actions. Eventually, Bragg says, the technology will be able to automatically adjust the plane’s speed or wing-flap position. Bragg’s team recently conducted computer simulations and is preparing to flight test the system this winter.

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