Back to top
Skip to main content

A new frontier in flight-testing research

Reedsville Proving Grounds (RPG)

Churning anomalies game plan. High performance Only 14 miles from WVU’s Morgantown campus tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains sits two one-of-a-kind test facilities that have launched the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering into new frontiers of aerospace engineering research. 

Story by Olivia Miller, Communications Specialist

For the last 15 years, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering has been conducting aerodynamics research with various United States Department of Defense organizations. The success of this research and subsequent funding have led to the development of the Reedsville Wind Tunnel and Reedsville Proving Grounds (RPG), both located at the J.W. Ruby Research Farm in Reedsville, West Virginia.

“The funding from the Army and the Navy has allowed our group to develop infrastructure and testing capabilities that are fairly unique in the country. We have state-of-the-art, one-of-a-kind facilities based on these projects,” said Wade Huebsch, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

In 2017, WVU was first awarded $1.6 million to assist the U.S. Navy in characterizing the flight of a fully unstable body that translated in all three dimensions and tumbled about all three axes. The characterization included both gathering the first-ever experimental flight data of this body, with approximately 300 flights to date, as well as helping to develop a generalized model to be able to predict the complex flight trajectory, which is in the early stages of research.

Since the first project in 2017, WVU has been awarded an additional $2.3 million to carry out additional research projects at these facilities.

“Most of our Department of Defense funded research projects have had one common goal — help the warfighter,” Huebsch said. “This can take the form of increased safety and defense, or it can take the form of increased capability. Either way, our group takes great pride in being able to help our U.S. military.”

The Reedsville Wind Tunnel is a whopping 16-by-16-by-110-foot indoor test facility that features a subsonic open-loop design. The wind tunnel is currently used as a controlled and safe indoor launch space that allows engineers to conduct tests year-round. Researchers are able to launch free-flight test articles in the controlled environment at launch velocities currently up to 66 m/s. This facility has also been used for DoD-sponsored avian free-flight experiments.

Unlike other wind tunnels, though, the Reedsville Wind Tunnel is lined with up to 70 high-resolution Vicon motion capture cameras. The Vicon systems work by using reflective markers — in this case, secured to the free-flight aerial vehicle — that use infrared cameras to track movement. This technology allows the researchers to capture high angular rates as the model tumbles through the air and capture in near-real time what the overall trajectory and body states are.

According to Huebsch, this type of flight testing and data acquisition are critical in improving the understanding of this extremely complex unstable flight regime, and eventually will aid in the development of improved predictive capabilities in this area.

Located at the same farm, the RPG boasts a one-of-a-kind outdoor free-flight test facility. The outdoor facility was used to capture the original 300 unstable flight trajectories, which are currently incorporated by Navy defense systems. It is also used for validation, consistency checks and scaling comparisons and can characterize motion for unmanned aerial vehicles, projectiles and other free flight phenomena. The proving grounds are also equipped with a data processing bunker, flight control center, customized launch systems, test models and cutting-edge data acquisition systems.

Huebsch credits WVU’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design for allowing their use of the space to carry out experiments.

“We are very grateful for the cooperation we have received from the Reedsville Farm,” Huebsch said.

The novel experimental data collected thus far by the researchers at the J.W. Ruby Research Farm is actively being used by the U.S. Navy.

“Analysis of these experiments can provide our sponsors with a wealth of previously undiscovered knowledge related to flight behaviors that can then be translated into critical defense tools,” said Teaching Associate Professor Pat Browning. “Over the last several years, RPG has been instrumental in providing our sponsors with a high volume of quality data at a competitive cost when compared to other test centers.”

Currently, Huebsch’s team consists of five faculty members, including Browning, Assistant Professor Piyush Mehta, Teaching Assistant Professor Chris Griffin, Associate Professor Jason Gross, and several graduate and undergraduate students. In the future, they hope to hire two full-time engineers to assist in the effort, as the research program grows, and the Navy finds additional topics that are well suited to be tested at these types of facilities.

According to Huebsch and Browning, the test facilities in Reedsville have opened doors for students to secure some of the best DoD engineering jobs in the country.

“Having students on the projects is a classic win-win situation: our team gains from the effort our students put into their work, whether it’s at the test range or in front of a computer; the students gain valuable experience and insight into a wide range of exciting engineering topics, make solid connections between what they learn in the classroom and what is practically possible to do, and more often than not have a great head start on a highly competitive career in the defense industry,” Browning said.