A team of engineers from the University of California San Diego have received a University Leadership Initiative grant worth $5.8 million from NASA, to create computational design tools so US companies can increase the speed at which they can develop more efficient air taxi designs.

This three-year project will result in a set of open-source simulation and optimisation tools which companies can use to design the optimal eVTOL aircraft for their needs.

Given several input parameters such as number of passengers, desired cruise speed and range requirement, these tools will allow engineers to determine the optimal number and shape of rotors, wing shape, structural design, propulsion system sizing, and other design aspects that yield the most cost-efficient vehicle – while ensuring it is safe and operates quietly.

In addition, the researchers will use these tools to perform vehicle configuration trade studies on safety, noise, and cost, to help companies make their design decisions.

John Hwang, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and principal investigator for the project, said: “We will combine multidisciplinary computational models of urban air mobility vehicles and advanced design optimisation algorithms to develop methods and tools for rapidly designing safe, quiet, and affordable vehicle concepts.”

“Given a computational model, state-of-the-art design optimisation algorithms can efficiently search for the optimal values of up to tens of thousands of design parameters that minimise or maximise some specified objective, such as vehicle operating cost.

The team at UC San Diego is one of five academic groups that received the University Leadership Initiative (ULI) award from NASA. The grant was created to initiate a new type of interaction between NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate and US universities, with academic researchers taking the lead on their own research projects that further NASA’s mission.

Key aspects of the ULI include a focus on transitioning the research results to industry or government partners to bring them to market; providing research opportunities for students; and promoting greater diversity in the aeronautics field through increased participation of underrepresented groups in engineering.

This particular project will have an industry advisory board consisting of both established aircraft companies and eVTOL startups. The team will also institute an aeronautics internship program for students, to enhance and coordinate recruiting and mentoring of undergraduate student researchers across all four universities involved.

The internship will be run in partnership with the Academic Enrichment Program at UC San Diego, which has experience managing internship programs for first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students in engineering.

Hwang added: “We will develop models for all aspects of the aircraft – such as aerodynamics, structures, acoustics, battery, and motor performance – and leverage these optimisation algorithms to navigate the most complex and unintuitive aspects of the eVTOL aircraft design problem.”

Joining Hwang in the team include UC San Diego engineers David Kamensky, Alicia Kim, and Shirley Meng. The team also includes Seongkyu Lee from UC Davis; Chris Mi from San Diego State University; Andrew Ning from Brigham Young University; Jeffrey Chambers and Adam Grasch from Aurora Flight Sciences; and Tyler Winter of M4 Engineering.

In all, the researchers bring expertise in computational modeling and optimisation, topology optimisation, batteries, acoustics, electric motors, aerodynamics, composite materials, and concept design.