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Launchers for analysing resistance to impact and improving armour plating

Universidad Carlos III De Madrid : 19 June, 2014  (Technical Article)
New pneumatic launchers at the Impact on Aeronautical Structures Laboratory, located at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) Science Park, make it possible to carry out a wide range of studies on problems of impact that arise in the aeronautics industry and on optimum armour plating in other sectors.
Launchers for analysing resistance to impact and improving armour plating
At these specialised facilities, which are linked to the UC3M-Airbus Group Joint Center, scientists are studying how structural elements react to applied loads at both low and high speeds. Phenomena of this sort can occur during maintenance operations (a tool falling in an aircraft) or while the elements are functioning. In the case of an airplane, for example, it can happen when a pebble hits an airplane during takeoff, or when a slab of ice comes off of a propeller or the leading edge of a wing and hits the fuselage.
“Our goal is to design armour plating whose protective behaviour is optimum,” explains José Antonio Loya, head of the laboratory and researcher in the UC3M Department of Continuum Mechanics and Structural Analysis. “If an element is well designed, a collision should not produce any catastrophic damage, but if not, the impact of a piece could go through it like a knife through butter,” he comments.
Models and impact tests
The studies that the researchers carry out help them better understand how structures respond to different kinds of impacts. At present, these studies entail reproducing computer models of the structures and analyzing what happens with certain impacts by using computer simulations. To validate the numerical models developed, it is necessary to produce impacts against real structural elements in the laboratory, under conditions similar to those when the elements are in use. Here is where the pneumatic launchers and high-speed cameras of the laboratory come into play, as they make it possible to examine every detail of the consequences that, for example, the collision of a slab of ice against a piece of carbon fiber from an airplane fuselage has.
The laboratory has three launchers of different calibres. Of these, the smallest-calibre launcher can reach impact speeds of up to 1000m/s (3600km/h), almost three times the speed of sound. The last launcher installed was built jointly with the company VTI (designated in Spanish as a “pyme,” the initials which stand for the category of small or medium firm), located at the UC3M “Leganés Tecnológico” Science Park. This launcher has a calibre of 60mm and can fire objects at up to 900km/h, around the speed at which airliners make trans-Atlantic flights. The projectiles normally fired by this kind of device are spherical or cylindrical. This new system makes it possible to launch other kinds of geometrical objects: anything that weighs less than 250g and has a diameter that is smaller than the machine calibre can be used as a projectile.
“What we do in those cases is to encapsulate our projectile with something the launching tube can be sealed with so that the gas propels it properly,” explains Loya. This has allowed the launching of ice projectiles with geometry to simulate the impact of ice that has come off the blade of a propeller or the leading edge of a wing against the fuselage of an airplane.
This kind of work has numerous practical applications because there are many components that can be subjected to impacts, from the casing of a mobile telephone, which should resist blows when it falls to the ground, to solar panels, susceptible to the impact of hail. “There are industrial sectors which are interested in analyzing the energy that a structure is capable of absorbing during a collision, while in others, the focus is on how much an impacting fragment penetrates,” says Loya. The work can be applied to the transportation sector, as it can improve the features of motorcycle helmets, automobile windshields and fuselages of airplanes and trains, where speed converts any object into a projectile capable of perforation.
In addition to high-speed pneumatic launchers, the laboratory has other equipment that enables researchers to make a complete mechanical description of structural elements, at both low and high temperatures. The laboratory concentrates on the study of light structures built mainly from composite materials, as used in the aeronautics and aerospace industries. In recenmt studies, researchers have created analytical models that identify different mechanisms of energy absorption after an impact on carbon/epoxy laminations and sandwich-type materials, and which have satisfactorily reproduced the experimental results obtained.
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