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U.K. and Canada push startups to address aerospace ice protection with AI

Large corporations outsourcing research and development (R&D) to acquirable startups has always been a thing. Now it’s happening to artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
A new “AI Innovation Challenge” tasks United Kingdom (U.K.) and Canadian startups and researchers to pitch ideas for how AI could improve aircraft efficiency in extreme weather. The challenge – organized by the UK Science and Innovation Network (SIN) in Canada, London-based Digital Catapult, Montreal-based Bombardier, and the Consortium in Aerospace and Research & Innovation in Canada (CARIC) – will encourage skills sharing and trade opportunities between the two countries while attracting highly talented and motivated individuals.

The challenge – funded with £30,000 ($38,754) from the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy and £70,000 ($90,426) from sponsors – is open to startups, scaleups, research institutions, and academic bodies with expertise in fields such as computer vision, generative models, predictive modeling, and physical simulations. The teams will showcase ideas as to how AI could make aircraft more aerodynamic and cut down on ice build-up.
  Ice build-up occurs where water droplets colect on an aircraft as it flies through clouds. This surface water can take the form either of a microscopic film coating, or of small, fast-moving beads and streaks called rivulets. If left unchecked, hard, translucent ice shapes called “glaze ice” form on aerodynamic flight surfaces. Additionally, in colder conditions, instantly freezing droplets can collect on leading edges, forming white, opaque “rime ice.” These forms of surface water and ice may appear at the same time over different areas of an airplane on the ground and in flight.

Initial natural icing tests are used to determine how ice will accumulate on an aircraft during an actual flight, like on the Bombardier Global 7000 FTV2.
To improve aircraft efficiency, researchers will investigate how AI can be leveraged to better characterize ice buildup on aircraft. The development of ice protection systems involves detailed physical modeling and extensive testing in experimental facilities or in flight. While being a key component of ice protection system modeling, in practice, detailed surface water dynamics is difficult to observe. Improving the characterization of such icing test data has the potential to enhance physical understanding for engineers and contribute to the evolution of ice protection simulation models.

“Artificial intelligence holds promises of vast improvements in all areas of our industry: design, development, manufacturing, and operations. Bombardier is collaborating with AI experts in Canada and the UK to realize these promises and apply these emerging technologies toward the development of next-generation aircraft and rail products. With this challenge, we are creating opportunities for a potential collaboration that could evolve our ongoing research in icing dynamics and further improve the predictions of our simulation,” says Dr. Fassi Kafyeke, senior director of strategic technologies and innovation at Bombardier.

While aircraft operators use various heat- or material-related de-icing technologies to break or melt ice buildup during flight, better ice protection methodologies would mean improved aerodynamics and more economical fuel burn for aircraft that fly through extreme weather. These factors could cut costs for UK- and Canada-based operators.

In 2015, the UK government and industry committed to spend £3.9 billion ($50 billion) to further transform aerospace research until 2026 and build on technological strengths through the UK’s Industrial Strategy. One of the strategy’s “grand challenges” is making the UK a global center for AI and data-driven innovation, which led the government to create the Artificial Intelligence Sector Deal through the new Office for AI.

 “This is a unique chance for the best and the brightest minds in artificial intelligence to come up with revolutionary ways to help aircraft operators to burn less fuel and cut costs. The UK has unrivalled heritage and world-leading expertise in both aerospace and AI, and our Industrial Strategy aims to build on that success in aerospace and make the UK a global center for AI and data-driven innovation,” says UK Business Secretary Greg Clark.

“Science and innovation has no borders, with most of the world’s best discoveries made through international and interdisciplinary collaborations. I have no doubt that working alongside Canadian researchers and innovators, UK experts will generate inspiring new approaches to this emerging technology,” continues Clark.

The AI Innovation Challenge will take open calls for participants through October 5 this year and will conclude with pitches delivered in UK and Canada on November 5 and December 3, respectively.

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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.

Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at
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