The Jonsson School

UTD Engineers Aim High To Keep Military Aircraft Controls Cool

A University of Texas at Dallas mechanical engineer has received a Young Investigator Program Award from the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program to address the challenges involved in making electric aircraft a reality.

koeln lab

UT Dallas doctoral student Alexander Gomez BS’21 shows Dr. Justin Koeln, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, a small-scale thermal management system that he and fellow students created as part of the UTDesign Senior Capstone Program. The equipment is now used in Koeln’s lab for their research.

Dr. Justin Koeln, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science, and his team of student researchers are developing strategies to integrate and manage the complex electrical and thermal management systems within naval aircraft. As in cars, certain components in aircraft are being replaced increasingly with electric versions, which need to be kept at lower temperatures than their conventional counterparts. This creates a need for control systems that can prevent overheating.

“The challenge is that there is not just one heat source; there are many, and it is not always easy to get this heat out of the aircraft,” Koeln said. The hotter the environment, the harder the system must work to keep from overheating, he said.

“When you are sitting on the tarmac during the summer in Dallas, it can be really hard and inefficient to transfer all the heat generated inside the aircraft to the surrounding outdoor environment,” he said. “The same is true if a military aircraft is flying very fast at low altitude in a hot climate.”

The Young Investigator Program supports academic scientists and engineers who are in their first or second full-time tenure-track appointment, who have received their doctorate in the past seven years and who show exceptional promise for doing creative research. The award provides $500,000 over three years.

“Justin’s work in thermal systems control is a wonderful fusion of both analytical and experimental methods that is a huge draw for our undergraduate and graduate students.”
Dr. Joshua Summers
Department Head and Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the
Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science

Dr. Joshua Summers, department head and professor of mechanical engineering, said, “Justin’s work in thermal systems control is a wonderful fusion of both analytical and experimental methods that is a huge draw for our undergraduate and graduate students. The work that they are doing in his group will have an impact at the international level, helping the U.S. Navy develop new technology that can be directly integrated into future defense and civilian applications.”

Researchers in Koeln’s Energy Systems Control Laboratory are developing hierarchical control systems — a set of decision-making algorithms and governing software organized as a hierarchy. For aircraft applications, the top-level controller plans the behavior of the entire aircraft over the entire flight, while lower levels of controllers are responsible for controlling smaller subsystems such as the engines, electronics and thermal management. Much of the research is theoretical, involving developing and analyzing models and computer simulations that is accompained by to hands-on experiments to test the theories.

Besides the Office of Naval Research award, Koeln has received support for his control systems research from Northrop Grumman Corp., which hired three of his students as interns this past summer. Koeln also sponsored two UTDesign Senior Capstone Program projects to develop small-scale thermal management systems, which he uses in his lab.

Koeln said he developed an interest in aerospace engineering as an undergraduate and student researcher at Utah State University. The Young Investigator Award provides opportunities for Koeln to, in turn, support student researchers such as Alexander Gomez BS’21, now a mechanical engineering doctoral student who worked on the thermal management UTDesign project. Koeln encouraged him to apply to the PhD program and work in his lab.

“I joined the lab because I liked working with Dr. Koeln in my senior design project,” Gomez said. “Dr. Koeln was incredibly valuable during the project. He was kind and supportive throughout, and I could tell he was committed to joint success. His knowledge, experience and communication skills allowed him to support our team when needed.”

Energy Systems and Control With Dr. Justin Koeln