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MIT Unveils a New Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel to Standardize the Aeronautic Sector

Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf Balogun
Yusuf is a law graduate and freelance journalist with a keen interest in tech reporting.

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In a bid to achieve a better world through education, research, and innovation, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, has officially announced the unveiling of a new Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel.

The Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel project was directed by Mark Drela, a Terry J. Kohler Professor at MIT, who joined the institute to study aerospace engineering in 1978.

Wind tunnels have been around for over 150 years; before their historic flight in 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright tested candidate wing designs in a simple open-ended wind tunnel they built. Almost everything on the Earth’s surface is surrounded by air. Wind tunnels circulate air over a stationary object in a controlled setting, allowing the operator to obtain aerodynamic data instead of moving an object through the air.

When designing something that interacts with airflow, it’s critical to understand and forecast the aerodynamic forces at work to diagnose and correct any flaws in the design. Wind tunnel data can help establish how much fuel an aircraft consumes, how slowly it can land, and how much maneuverability it has. Wind tunnels, on the other hand, aren’t just for aerospace.

They can also monitor wind loads on stationary objects like bridges and buildings and aerodynamic loads on ground vehicles like cars and bicycles. Wind tunnels are also used by scientists and engineers for basic research, such as investigating how air behaves when it interacts with an item to understand fluid mechanics better.

Almost all wind tunnels strive to produce “clean” airflow, defined as a uniform flow with a constant velocity devoid of distortion or turbulence. For the needed test-section size, the convention would advise a large tunnel, which, ironically, uses less power to generate superior airflow quality while generating less noise. On the other hand, size was not an option for the Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel.

A new MATLAB-based tunnel control and data collecting system are included in the new tunnel. This technology streamlines and fully customizes the traditional functions of manual tunnel operation, control, and data collection. The Wright Brothers Wind Tunnel has served as a campus icon for teaching, research, industry, and outreach since its dedication in 1938. Even so, it was showing its age by the time Drela had his tragic first meeting.

Thanks to a lead financing commitment from Boeing and Drela, the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) announced in 2017 that it would replace the tunnel with a brand-new facility. Today, MIT is home to the country’s most modern academic wind tunnel, capable of attaining wind speeds of up to 230 miles per hour (mph), as well as the country’s largest test section.

Speaking on the need for the project, the director, Mark Drela, said: “To have the best facility possible, we knew we needed a large test section with very good airflow quality and a maximum speed of at least 200 miles per hour, which dictated a large tunnel size and a powerful drive motor,”

“But since the tunnel sits right in the middle of campus, we had to achieve these goals while making it compatible with our urban environment. When your goals massively conflict with your constraints, you get an incredibly challenging project.” Drela added.


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