Fighting An Airplane's Natural Enemy: Ice

Dec 23, 2015

A Canonsburg-based company’s superfast computer simulations are helping airplane designers learn about something that the rest of us might not want to think about: how ice forms on airplane wings and engines.

Once an airplane takes off, it soars into hard-to-predict natural elements. One of the most dangerous of those elements is ice. A technology stalwart in the region called ANSYS is addressing this problem.

“What we’re able to do is simulate an aircraft or components of an aircraft flying in essentially icing conditions,” said ANSYS’ Global Industry Director Rob Harwood. “It’s very difficult to understand or replicate those conditions in physical tests.”

Understanding this problem has even proven difficult until recently for computers.  

“These types of computations are quite complicated,” Harwood says. “They’re not simple simulations. There’s a lot of equations being solved, there’s a lot of computer horsepower being used to actually calculate this.”

The additional horsepower allowed ANSYS to improve on two-dimensional simulations of individual airplane parts and instead create 3-D representations of an entire plane.

ANSYS has been developing software simulations for industrial customers since the 1970s, long before the region's tech boom. Today it’s a $1 billion dollar global company. Its simulations have helped improve speed and efficiency in products from race cars to swimsuits.

ANSYS estimated that its new developments in anti-icing simulation cost 50 times less than real-world tests in an icing tunnel. Harwood says that before a plane is tested, a company wants to have a pretty good idea that a $10 million prototype engine can stand up to an ice slab being shot into it. ANSYS’ computer animation demonstrates how engines react to both big ice slabs and tiny drops of ice.

Harwood said this type of anti-icing simulation also can be used in predicting and preventing the formulation of ice on wind turbines. And simulation work like this is getting faster all the time.

“Today the simulation might take a day, might run overnight,” Harwood said. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, that might’ve been a week. In five years’ time, we’ve got to make sure that’s an hour.” 

In this week's Tech Report calendar: 

  • In this week’s tech calendar, on Feb. 1, it’s Cyburgh. Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh Technology Council host a day-long program about developing a secure cyber domain.