Airborne urban mobility

Pop.Up_copyright Italdesign 2

At the Airbus PhD workshop that I attended a couple of weeks ago [see my post entitled Making Engineering Work for Society on September 13th 2017], Axel Flaig, Head of Airbus Research and Technology, gave us an excellent opening presentation describing their vision for the future.  Besides their vision for the next generation of passenger aircraft with reductions in CO2, NOx and noise emissions of 75%, 90% and 65% respectively against 2000 levels by 2050, they are also looking at urban air mobility.  We have 55 megacities [cities with a population of more than 10 million] and it is expected that this will increase to 93 by 2035 [see my post entitled ‘Hurrying Feet in Crowded Camps’ on August 16th, 2017].  These megacities are characterized by congestion and time-wasted moving around them; so, Airbus is working on designs for intra-city transport that takes us off the roads and into the air.  Perhaps the most exciting is the electric Pop.up concept that is being developed with Italdesign.  But, Airbus are beyond concepts: they have a demonstrator single-seater, self-pilot vehicle, the Vahana that will fly in 2017 and a multi-passenger demonstrator scheduled to fly in 2018.

Soon, we will have to look left, right and up before we cross the road, or maybe nobody will walk anywhere – though that would be bad news for creative thinking [see my post on ‘Gone Walking’ on 19th April 2017], amongst other things!


Image from where there is also a video.


Making engineering work for society

Last week I attended a one-day workshop for PhD students sponsored by Airbus.  Most of the students produced a poster describing their research; and a dozen brave ones gave a three-minute presentation on their PhD thesis.  It’s a challenge to describe three years of research in three minutes to an audience that are not experts in your specialist field.  However, the result was an exciting and stimulating morning covering subjects as diverse as multidisciplinary design optimization and cognitive sources of ethical behaviour in business.  The latter was presented by Solenne Avet who was the only woman amongst the twelve three-minute thesis presenters.  The gender diversity was better for the other, longer talks with two women out of six presenters.  Interestingly, the female PhD students were the only ones tackling the interaction between engineering and human behaviour, including system-human communication, collective engineering work and innovation processes, which I have suggested is essential for viable engineering solutions to our global and societal challenges [see my post ‘Re-engineering engineering’ on August 30th, 2017].  This population sample is too small to make a reliable generalization; however, it suggests that a gender-balanced engineering profession would be more likely to succeed in making substantial contributions to our current challenges [see UN Global Issues Overview].

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The red crane

The red crane by Weimen He

One of my favourite institutions to visit is the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford.  I have written before about their rotating exhibition in the Treasury of unique books and manuscripts from their collection [see my post entitled ‘Pope and Austen‘ on September 9th, 2015].  A recent visit did not disappoint and included one of John Le Carré’s manuscripts showing his extensive editing as well as early texts written on birch bark.  However, it was in the shop that something really caught my eye.  The fusion of art and engineering in a postcard depicting a painting called ‘The red crane’, by artist in residence, Dr Weimen He, capturing the moments in time during the refurbishment of the library.  This level of fusion is rare in my experience and perhaps the ethos that created it is one of the reasons the Weston Library is such a pleasure to visit.

The Roman architect, Vitruvius identified the three principles of good structural design to be ‘firmitas, utilitas, venustas’ or durability, utility and beauty.  Too often utility, including value for money, trumps beauty and shortens horizons for durability; so that little is contributed to our culture and nothing worthwhile will be left for future generations.

BTW there is a very large bookshop next door to the Weston Library and I couldn’t resist buying ‘The Story of a Brief Marriage‘ by Anuk Arudpragasam.  It’s a beautiful novel of consciousness about love and war.

Getting smarter

A350 XWB passes Maximum Wing Bending test [from:

Garbage in, garbage out (GIGO) is a perennial problem in computational simulations of engineering structures.  If the description of the geometry of the structure, the material behaviour, the loading conditions or the boundary conditions are incorrect (garbage in), then the simulation generates predictions that are wrong (garbage out), or least an unreliable representation of reality.  It is not easy to describe precisely the geometry, material, loading and environment of a complex structure, such as an aircraft or a powerstation; because, the complete description is either unavailable or too complicated.  Hence, modellers make assumptions about the unknown information and, or to simplify the description.  This means the predictions from the simulation have to be tested against reality in order to establish confidence in them – a process known as model validation [see my post entitled ‘Model validation‘ on September 18th, 2012].

It is good practice to design experiments specifically to generate data for model validation but it is expensive, especially when your structure is a huge passenger aircraft.  So naturally, you would like to extract as much information from each experiment as possible and to perform as few experiments as possible, whilst both ensuring predictions are reliable and providing confidence in them.  In other words, you have to be very smart about designing and conducting the experiments as well as performing the validation process.

Together with researchers at Empa in Zurich, the Industrial Systems Institute of the Athena Research Centre in Athens and Dantec Dynamics in Ulm, I am embarking on a new EU Horizon 2020 project to try and make us smarter about experiments and validation.  The project, known as MOTIVATE [Matrix Optimization for Testing by Interaction of Virtual and Test Environments (Grant Nr. 754660)], is funded through the Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking with Airbus acting as our topic manager to guide us towards an outcome that will be applicable in industry.  We held our kick-off meeting in Liverpool last week, which is why it is uppermost in my mind at the moment.  We have 36-months to get smarter on an industrial scale and demonstrate it in a full-scale test on an aircraft structure.  So, some sleepness nights ahead…


ASME V&V 10-2006, Guide for verification & validation in computational solid mechanics, American Society of Mech. Engineers, New York, 2006.

European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), Validation of computational solid mechanics models, CEN Workshop Agreement, CWA 16799:2014 E.

Hack E & Lampeas G (Guest Editors) & Patterson EA (Editor), Special issue on advances in validation of computational mechanics models, J. Strain Analysis, 51 (1), 2016.

Happenstance, not engineering?


A few weeks ago I wrote that ‘engineering is all about ingenuity‘ [post on September 14th, 2016] and pointed out that while some engineers are involved in designing, manufacturing and maintaining engines, most of us are not.  So, besides being ingenious, what do the rest of us do?  Well, most of us contribute in some way to the conception, building and sustaining of networks.  Communication networks, food supply networks, power networks, transport networks, networks of coastal defences, networks of oil rigs, refineries and service stations, or networks of mines, smelting works and factories that make everything from bicycles to xylophones.  The list is endless in our highly networked society.  A network is a group of interconnected things or people.  And, engineers are responsible for all of the nodes in our networks of things and for just about all the connections in our networks of both things and people.

Engineers have been constructing networks by building nodes and connecting them for thousands of years, for instance the ancient Mesopotamians were building aqueducts to connect their towns with distance water supplies more than four millenia ago.

Engineered networks are so ubiquitous that no one notices them until something goes wrong, which means engineers tend to get blamed more than praised.  But apparently that is the fault of the ultimate network: the human brain.  Recent research has shown that blame and praise are assigned by different mechanisms in the brain and that blame can be assigned by every location in the brain responsible for emotion whereas praise comes only from a single location responsible for logical thought.  So, we blame more frequently than we praise and we tend to assume that bad things are deliberate while good things are happenstance.  So reliable networks are happenstance rather than good engineering in the eyes of most people!


Ngo L, Kelly M, Coutlee CG, Carter RM , Sinnott-Armstrong W & Huettel SA, Two distinct moral mechanisms for ascribing and denying intentionality, Scientific Reports, 5:17390, 2015.

Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.