Engineering PhD Students’ Arctic Discovery Leads to Safer Airplane Engines

December 17, 2019

By Julie Bonette

On September 30, 2017, an Airbus A380 took off from the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris headed for the Los Angeles International Airport, but it never arrived. While flying over the Greenland ice sheet, the engine failed and its fan hub split, with one part falling from the plane. Thankfully, the crew was able to land at the Goose Bay Airport in Canada without further incident, but the part was left on the ice sheet.

The Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) assembled a search team so that organizations such as the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board could analyze the engine’s fan hub to determine what went wrong. But finding the engine piece on the ice sheet was like trying to find a needle in a hazardous haystack.

Enter Joshua Elliott Th'17 and Austin Lines, respectively engineering PhD Innovation and PhD students at Dartmouth. Elliott and Lines joined the GEUS search team along with their robot, FrostyBoy, an autonomous electric-powered ground vehicle guided by GPS. GEUS had originally contacted Laura Ray, professor of engineering, senior associate dean of faculty development, and Elliott and Lines’ advisor, but she referred them to Elliott and Lines as the pair had recently founded Polar Research Equipment, a company specializing in expanding human understanding of the Arctic and Antarctic by giving polar researchers access to high-tech, safe, and efficient observation tools.

Frosty Boy in the Polar landscape
FrostyBoy heads out into the field. (Photo by Austin Lines)

“Our lab at Dartmouth has had multiple years and many hundreds of kilometers of successful autonomous operation of our original robots in support of science research in Greenland and Antarctica, but this request was more of a support mission and better suited for Austin and Josh’s fledgling enterprise,” said Ray, “Their participation also benefitted their PhD research, so it was a win-win situation.”

The GEUS team landed in Greenland in April 2019 and after two weeks of weather delays, Elliott and Lines’ one-of-a-kind FrostyBoy robot was finally able to tow ground penetrating radar across the search area to look for crevasses. FrostyBoy was a necessity for the mission, as they found that previously designed robots were not adequate for the low cohesion terrain in Greenland. 

“We wanted to survey three different areas that we thought were the most likely spots to find the part, but two of them were in crevasse zones,” said Elliott, who noted the original search areas were determined through radar overflights. “The idea was to create a path from safe areas out to the crevasse field.”

Elliott and Lines then took to the “really fun” task of looking through all of their robot’s data to map out the crevasses, allowing the team to stay safe, “which is really, really labor and eyestrain intensive,” according to Elliott.

“It was actually really good that we found the part." ... As a result, all A380 engines are required to go through rigorous inspections testing for the flaw.

Although FrostyBoy was designed to look for crevasses in the ice sheet, Elliott and Lines noticed an anomaly outside of the designated search area in their data. 

“The anomaly kept showing up, so we got pretty excited and told everyone that we think we see something,” said Lines. 

Using a metal detector, the group detected a peak signal at the site of the anomaly. They had found the engine fan hub.

With only a few days of the five-week mission remaining, crew members had to return home and schedule a second trip to retrieve the piece. Lines returned to Greenland a month later with a new team and was able to recover the engine piece in just two weeks.

“It was actually really good that we found the part, because once inspected, they found that a crack had formed due to the metallurgical process of making the fan hub,” said Lines, who notes that as a result, all A380 engines are required to go through rigorous inspections testing for the flaw. If the same problem is found, the entire engine needs to be rebuilt to the tune of $750,000.

Lines and Elliott, who both hope to graduate by fall 2020, have already been contacted by another team looking for lost WWII planes in Greenland and are eager to start their next expedition.