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Aerospace engineering

Advancing efficient and effective aerospace systems

We tackle fundamental challenges in aerospace engineering, from advanced composite structures, hybrid propulsion systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and new control algorithms to complete satellite systems.

Our research

We are home to exceptional research engineers who have consistently progressed the design, analysis and operation of flight and space vehicle systems. Partnering with national and international government agencies and industries, we combine our unique multidisciplinary capabilities to develop complete aerospace systems that address current and future challenges in security, defence, commercial aviation, agriculture, environmental monitoring and space exploration.

Our research is supported through prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) grants and numerous ongoing research and consultancy projects with industry and government/defence partners. We are part of the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre and the new ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre on Cubesats, unmanned aerial vehicles and their applications. Our research outputs have been ranked at either ‘above world class’ or ‘world class’ by the Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) rankings.

Our research specialises in the following core competencies:

Our activities are supported by excellent experimental facilities including a wind tunnel, structural testing labs, vacuum chambers, full motion variable stability flight simulators, exceptional microscopy facilities, high-altitude testing facilities, fuel cell and propulsion rigs, modal-resonance vibration testing equipment, high-performance computing, and indoor and outdoor UAV flight-testing facilities, including our own dedicated airfield. Our combination of disciplinary strength and co-location of multiple disciplines enables us to effectively address key challenges in aerospace engineering.

Our experts: Professor Liyong Tong, Emeritus Professor Grant Steven, Dr Gareth Vio

Our work with aerospace structures and materials includes analysis, design and manufacturing. In relation to structures, we focus on development of efficient and effective methods for large and multi-scale numerical simulation including optimisation and composite structures. In particular, we concentrate on structural connections, repairs, shape, vibration control and health monitoring.

Our expertise in materials ranges from nanoscale fabrication such as carbon fibre and carbon nanotubes grafting, to characterisation of magnetic field-driven shape memory alloys and three-dimensional reinforced composites. 

Our experts: Associate Professor Ben Thornber, Dr Doug Auld, Emeritus Professor Graeme Bird, Dr Gareth Vio

Our collaborators: Glasgow University

Industry partners: Defence Science and Technology Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Moog Ltd

We conduct world-renowned research into very high order methods for compressible turbulent flows with a focus on turbulence, aeroacoustics and mixing. We led the pioneering development of the Direct Simulation Monte Carlo approach under Emeritus Professor Graeme Bird.

Our research reveals that fundamental challenges exist in computational fluid flow in aerospace applications, associated with the typical high-speed and large-scale objects. This leads to highly turbulent flow fields with thin, yet incredibly important, boundary layers.

Our computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research focuses on three key core competencies: improved CFD algorithms;  improved understanding of the underlying physics; and improved computational models of complex problems. These are crucial for the global aerospace industry.

Highlights in these competencies include the development of new fully compressible methods, able to resolve turbulent fluctuations at low Mach. These methods permit accurate computations of flows, involving both high and low-speed components, such as flow separations, recirculation and flows in wheel bays or weapons bays.

In collaboration with our partners, we are working on advanced models of rotor blades to assist helicopters in approaching the flight deck of Royal Australian Navy vessels. These models are an order of magnitude faster than existing approaches and aim to enable accurate assessments of the safety of approaches under different weather and operational conditions.

Our low Mach fully-compressible solvers enable us to address challenges in aeroacoustics, through ongoing research collaboration with Jaguar Land Rover. We have developed novel RANS-LES approaches that permit the computation of automotive aeroacoustics at a practical Reynolds number. In addition, through collaboration with Moog Ltd, we have undertaken analysis and design of kilo newton- (kN) sized apogee engines. 

Our experts: Associate Professor Peter Gibbens

Current generation aerospace systems are heavily dependent on the global positioning system (GPS) for navigation accuracy. However, GPS has accuracy limitations and frailties that make it unreliable for modern autonomous aircraft and drones, especially those operating in urban areas where signal interference and multi-path errors are significant. There is substantial interest to develop guidance navigation and control solutions that are tolerant to GPS interruptions.

We are also working on developing navigation systems that are aided by electro-optical sensors and provide another level of navigation accuracy. Our approach is motivated by bio-mimicry, in particular how human pilots perform visual navigation relative to a map. This process concerns identifying and correlating visible features on a map and thus localising the aircraft on the map.

Examples are aerial navigation by identifying and tracking known road intersections, waterways or horizon shapes. These techniques amount to a modernised optimal blending of the established techniques of simultaneous localisation and mapping and terrain aided navigation. The aim is to implement these in real-time as a back-up for GPS.

Our research also aims to develop complementary approaches in model predictive control to make small autonomous aircraft and drones more tolerant to atmospheric turbulence. This is especially important in near-surface operations like low-level terrestrial operations and operations in close proximity to ships. Combined, these technologies are essential for ensuring safe and reliable operation of autonomous/automatic aircraft in remote and populated areas.

Our experts: Associate Professor Ben Thornber, Dr Gareth Vio, Emeritus Professor Grant Steven, Dr Dries Verstraete

Industry partners: Defence Science and Technology Group, Sandia National Laboratory

Developed at the University of Sydney 20 years ago, evolutionary structural optimisation is under constant development and enhancement. We are making large strides, especially in the area of fluid-structure interaction, examining aircraft wings but also micro-baffle.

We are also improving coupling of very high order accurate large Eddy simulation methods with reduced structural models via radial basis functions (RBF). This permits the solution of high-fidelity unsteady compressible turbulent fluid structure interaction (FSI) problems. The RBF method for force transfer and mesh deformation is feasible, computationally efficient and allows complete flexibility in the choice of computational mesh for the fluid and fidelity of the structure model.

We collaborate with the Defence Science and Technology Group and Sandia National Laboratory, focussing on weapons bay FSI, where very high sound loading (up to 170 decibels) can cause severe structural vibrations and fatigue. We anticipate that future developments of this methodology will allow improved prediction and mitigation of structural vibrations within gaps, cavities and wheel bays on aerospace vehicles.

Our experts: Dr Xiaofeng Wu, Mr Warwick Holmes, Adjunct Professor Greg Chamitoff

Our collaborators: National University of Singapore; Texas A&M University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 

Future space craft are becoming autonomous, miniature, intelligent and widely distributed space-based mechatronic systems. Accordingly, we target the development of flexible and intelligent embedded networked micro-satellites for space applications.

Our research covers the following areas:

  • overall spacecraft system engineering for various applications
  • space embedded systems including system-on-chip and micro-electro-mechanical systems
  • navigation and control technologies for satellites formation flying
  • sensors and actuators for space and near-space applications.

Our small satellites program includes the design of small satellite systems and high altitude atmospheric test platforms for satellite sensor development and technology verification. We are designing micro-satellites and small-satellites with a mass range from 1kg to 200kg, with the capability to accommodate scientific and commercial payloads. 

Our satellite design activities are focused on providing space-based applications and solutions for agriculture remote sensing, mining, atmospheric sciences, environmental monitoring, telecommunications and innovative systems implementation. We are currently defining the requirements, design, project planning and the technical development proposal for a hyperspectral imaging satellite optimised for Australian Earth observation applications.

We also work with the National University of Singapore in the development of high-precision satellite technology for quantum-key encryption solutions. Similarly, collaboration with Texas A&M University includes the creation of virtual reality simulations for satellite structural engineering and potential human-colonisation of Mars.

Our experts: Dr Dries Verstraete, Associate Professor KC Wong

Industry partners: Defence Science and Technology Group, Northrop Grumman, Air Affairs, Aerosonde

Engines have been recognised as the Achilles’ heel in many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). While payloads have evolved rapidly to now encompass advanced sensors, propulsion technology has not made similar strides and UAVs are often fitted with legacy engines. We focus on three key areas to advance propulsion technology for UAVs:

  • hybrid fuel-cell-based propulsion systems
  • small variable pitch propellers
  • micro gas turbine systems.

Each of these technologies is key to enhancing the commercial potential of small-to-medium sized UAVs and solving the industry bottleneck.

Our propulsion lab possesses the facilities and expertise to conduction component, scale-model and system level tests of electric propulsion hardware. We are your one-stop resource for testing and innovative solutions for small-scale electric propulsion trains, and have active collaborations with the Defence Science and Technology Group, Northrop Grumman, Air Affairs, and Aerosonde on optimisation and integration of hybrid-electric powertrains. Our experimental investigations are complimented with advanced simulation capabilities and hardware-in-the-loop simulators for a range of propulsion technologies.

Our experts: Dr Dries Verstraete, Associate Professor KC Wong

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – also known as remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) by global aviation regulators and commonly referred to as drones – have been a significant research activity at the University of Sydney for more than 60 years.

Our internationally-recognised expertise in the design and development of innovative UAVs has been applied to multiple research projects involving airframe systems, instrumentation, flight simulation, flight dynamics, control, guidance and navigation, flight testing, system characterisation, flight operations and market analysis.

Our recent legacy systems include the Brumby series of UAVs used for industry-driven multi-year multidisciplinary research projects. Our innovative T-Wing VTOL UAV developed from a PhD project into a significant research and development project supported by the federal government with domestic and international partners, led to the demonstration of a mode-transitioning flight capability, which is still highly sought after today. Rapid prototyping, system characterisation and flight testing of UAV systems with uniquely agile capabilities remain the core of our research activities.

Active research projects include exploring innovations in design concepts to meet ever more demanding operational requirements relating to cruise efficiency, runway-independent launch and recovery, novel applications for UAVs. We also endeavour to push the limits on miniaturisation of practical flight platforms. Our expertise and experience in designing, optimising, and operating UAVs remain invaluable in ensuring affirmative cross-disciplinary research outcomes to take advantage of autonomous remote flight capabilities.