Parachute technology at all-time high

Patrick Casey

Using a supercomputer one thousand times faster than a personal computer, researchers at the University are trying to create the perfect parachute drop.
Researchers from the University’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics and the Army High Performance Computing Research Center are developing computer models that simulate real-life parachute airdrops. Using two supercomputers — the Cray T3D and CM5 Thinking Machine — researchers hope to reduce the number of expensive air drop tests required in the development of parachutes.
“Studying the aerodynamics of parachutes is one of the most difficult aerodynamic problems around,” said William Garrard, head of the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics. The professor has studied parachute aerodynamics since 1979.
For 25 years researchers have been able to solve equations for the aerodynamics of airplanes using standard mathematics. However, computer technology has only recently allowed researchers to solve the complicated equations involved in simulating parachute drops, Garrard said.
The aerodynamics of airplanes are easier to compute than parachutes due to constant air flow surrounding the crafts. Parachutes change shape and speed during an airdrop. Solving the equations involved in parachute aerodynamics, “is on the cutting edge of computational aerodynamics,” said Garrard.
Using the Minnesota Supercomputer Center in Minneapolis, the University has become one of the leading academic centers for parachute research in the world, said Garrard.
Because the center is an independent contractor for the Army, undergraduates, graduates and faculty from the University are able to use the most modern computer technology to help the military solve critical technical problems, Garrard said.
Shahrouz Aliabadi, a research assistant professor for the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics works for the Army High Performance Research Center. “The University is the right place to do any kind of aerodynamics and computer studies,” said Aliabadi.
Vinay Kalro, a research associate for the department and the center, said, “It’s one of the premiere computing facilities … there are very few universities out there with this kind of computational facilities which we have.”
But using high-tech equipment won’t perfect parachute drops, in itself. Researchers from the department and the center have many technical issues to address first.
Researchers want to understand how gigantic parachutes carrying 21 tons of cargo are going to act during an airdrop and want to predict how a huge parachute is going to behave. “How is it going to glide? Is it gonna drop straight or is it gonna fly straight? Is it gonna turn? What is it gonna do?” said Kalro.
Researchers at the center are developing software which will enable them to study the simulated aerodynamics of parachutes that are as big as football fields. Garrard said these parachutes are 20 to 100 times larger then the parachutes used by sky divers.
Kalro said of all the parachutes, larger ones are the most important to simulate via computer. “Normally, the way these things are designed is to put them in a wind tunnel. (Larger parachutes) are so big you cannot simulate them inside a wind tunnel.”
The University team of researchers who simulate parachute aerodynamics, headed by Professor Tayfun Tezduyar and Garrard, is catching the eye of researchers worldwide.
The team was awarded the 1996 Commander’s Educational Award for Excellence from the U.S. Army Systems Command. The research is also of great interest to NASA and the European Space Agency, said Garrard. The two groups might use the parachute technology developed at the University for the recovery of space vehicles that have fallen to earth.
Garrard said the research is helpful for the European Space Agency because parachute recovery systems are cheaper than building a craft to recover lost items.
Besides perfecting parachute drops, the main goal of the center is to develop and advance the science of high-performance computing.
“The mission of this center is to educate a new generation of students in high-performance computer technology,” said Aliabadi.
The center is a partnership between the University, the United States Army, Research Laboratories, the Minnesota Supercomputer Center, Inc., and four other academic institutions.
The promotion of high-performance computing among minorities is one of the main objectives of the program, Garrard said. A partnership exists between the center and four predominantly black universities: Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Howard University and Jackson State University.
“We give opportunities to students to put their hands on the most advanced computers … and play with them and learn about them,” said Aliabadi.