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Small Businesses Can Maximize IPP Funds To Develop
Technology NASA Needs And That Leads To Commercial
Rolling Hills Research Corp. is a small
business that has earned success through its work and
its use of Innovative Partnerships Program funding, such
as the Small Business Innovative Research and Small
Business Technology Transfer programs, to more closely
examine its ideas.
Rolling Hills President and CEO Brian Kramer said at the
core of the company's success is, "we are very
interested in the ideas we propose and we have a lean
In addition, the company has become focused on using
aerodynamics to improve vehicles and their safety and
promoting creativity and freedom in applying innovative
ideas to problems.
Two categories summarize many of Rolling Hill's
successes: its water tunnel and application of
evolutionary flow-visualization and measurement
techniques, and using the water tunnel to do "pretty
much anything you can do in a wind tunnel," Kramer said.
In addition, the company also is known for its research
into flow control and drag reduction techniques.
The water tunnel and SBIR
The water tunnel and the expansion of its capabilities are
SBIR success stories showcasing what technology
development agreements are intended to lead to - a
commercially viable product that can resolve technology
challenges, Kramer said.
A wide range of challenges can be met through the use of
the water tunnel and at an economical cost. Small models
used in the water tunnel are less expensive and can be
developed early in the program, when changes can prevent
errors leading to big-dollar investments, he added.
The water tunnel was first designed and built for flow
visualization, or how flow moves over aerodynamic
surfaces. Over the years Rolling Hills researchers took
the tool to the next level by using SBIR agreements to
develop instruments for use in the water tunnel, such as
the five-component submersible balance to measure forces
and moments in the water tunnel.
During the past year Rolling Hills researchers were
studying surface pressures on a fully instrumented
airfoil model in the water tunnel for an SBIR-funded
investigation. It simulated a wing in flight, which is
common in a wind tunnel but not in a water tunnel.
Very low Reynolds number airfoil development with
pressure measurements did not exist before, and the new
tool allowed the company to take a qualitative tool and
make it more quantitative, said Mike Kerho, Rolling
Hills chief aerodynamicist and a principal investigator
on many of the company's projects.
"Through an SBIR with Dryden, we were able to develop
the technology to accurately measure model surface
pressures at very low Reynolds numbers. If you're going
to do airfoil models and you want to learn something
about what the flow field is doing, pressures are a good
diagnostic tool to obtain a quantitative understanding
of the state of the flow field," Kerho said.
In addition to using the water tunnel for
two-dimensional airfoil studies, three-dimensional
aircraft models can be studied using a unique
computer-controlled dynamic model support system, which
provides the ability to rotate the model in the water
tunnel about the three axes - pitch, yaw and roll - to
permit researchers to take data as the test article is
rotated in the water tunnel and for which the stability
derivatives can be calculated, Kerho said.
The new capabilities for the water tunnel have made it
even more attractive to universities that continue to
purchase them in the United States and in a number of
countries around the world, including Mexico, France and
A rapid-prototyping technology, which
Rolling Hills contracts out for its customers to gain
even greater use of the water tunnel, is stereo
lithography, Kerho explained.
While metal and fiber glass models are required for a
wind-tunnel environment they are typically costly and
time-consuming to manufacture. A system similar to
three-dimensional computer-assisted drawing programs now
can use lasers to sculpt plastic, resulting in an
accurate prototype that is strong enough to endure
water-tunnel testing, he said.
Because the water tunnel applies less pressure to a test
object compared to a wind tunnel, the stereo lithography
models hold up, Kerho said. Model accuracy is essential
in wind and water tunnel testing and this process for
model manufacturing coupled with the water tunnel can
provide both a time- and cost-effective alternative to
traditional wind-tunnel testing. Rolling Hills worked
with several rapid prototyping shops to develop a
methodology that provides high-quality models quickly
Using SBIR for innovative research
The SBIR grants have been invaluable to
Rolling Hills for examining its new concepts, Kramer
"It's like peeling back the skin of an onion. When you
peel away a layer, you can learn about a limiting factor
somewhere else," he said. "Once we identify a problem,
sometimes we have to solve five others before we get
The funding provided by the SBIR awards is key for the
"SBIRs help us to pursue new ideas that we want to
research and is our primary source for funding them,"
Kerho said. "We couldn't do it without SBIR. We do not
have the extra capital to do research and development.
We use the SBIR agreements to take our ideas and flesh
them out to see if they can work. In addition, the
technical reviews often give us other ideas on how to
best make it work out."
Dryden is a frequent partner with Rolling Hills on SBIR
proposals, but the company also has worked with Langley
Research Center, Hampton Va., and Ames Research Center,
Moffett Field, Calif.
The Rolling Hills water tunnel work does
have a downside: the Reynolds number produced by the
water tunnel cannot be scaled for larger vehicles
because of the boundary layer differences, or airflow
that moves directly above aerodynamic surfaces, he said.
However, smaller unmanned air vehicles, or micro UAVs,
are one class of aircraft that does not have that
challenge, he said. Those vehicles can be tested at
full-size and full-flight Reynolds numbers, so the water
tunnel can produce accurate results.
In addition, the company has applied for a patent for a
method for controlling the boundary layer transition
from laminar to turbulent on low-Reynolds-number
aircraft as a result of some of its SBIR work. Micro
UAVs and high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft have
challenges caused by very low Reynolds numbers, such as
laminar separation bubbles. This technology has proven
to reduce drag by 35 to 40 percent, Kramer said.
Through the same SBIR used to develop the
low-Reynolds-number airfoil drag-reduction technologies,
Rolling Hills also developed a flow-visualization
methodology to study the flow field of small,
low-Reynolds-number propellers. Similar to the main
airfoils on micro UAVs and high-altitude, long-endurance
aircraft, the propellers on these aircraft that generate
propulsion also suffer from the same
low-Reynolds-number-based degradation. Rolling Hills
developed a flow-visualization technique to apply its
SBIR-developed technology to provide a detailed picture
of the propeller surface flow field that can be used to
help improve propeller performance.
A current Innovative Partnership Program
seed fund proposal that Rolling Hills has on the table
is for a separation detector. The IPP is the big
umbrella that includes a number of funding mechanisms,
such as SBIR, STTR, and the IPP seed fund, to assist
companies with their fledgling technology projects.
Called "electronic yarn," the detector is essentially an
array consisting of 100 or more self-powered and
self-contained sensors. The idea is to replace tufts and
cameras for detecting separated airflow in flight with a
simple and robust system that does not require
calibration or cameras and gives a simple yes-or-no
answer to the question of whether there is an
This could be useful in programs like that of the
Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, in
which there is a large opening in the side of the
aircraft where the telescope "peers" out from its host
NASA 747SP. NASA may need to investigate and modify
configurations like the SOFIA to ensure flow-separation
problems do not exist, Kramer said.
The commercialization prospects are high if the detector
performs as predicted, Kramer said. The sensors can
record information on a flash drive and require no
external power source. The application of the idea goes
beyond flight research. It could be used in automobiles,
ducting and other scenarios in which sensors are
required and where there is no visual access available.
Rolling Hills researchers are looking forward with an
ongoing STTR agreement with partner California
Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
That work is focused on a thrust-vectoring aerospike
nozzle and evolved into a current project with an
Aerospike nozzles are considered to be efficient because
they adjust to changes in atmospheric pressure due to
altitude (compared to a bell-shaped nozzle that does
not) as the rocket propels a vehicle. The problem with
aerospike nozzles is they often become too hot and need
to be cooled, Kramer said. The oxidizer-cooled aerospike
concept does what its name implies - it turns fuel into
vapor and uses that phase change to cool the engine.
Another new development for Rolling Hills researchers is
an STTR agreement with the University of Illinois for a
real-time flight-envelope monitoring capability that
would give pilot alerts in situations such as icing,
heavy rain, battle damage, bird strikes, and other
safety-related dangers. If the systems prove robust,
they would be good candidates for commercialization, he
Indications are that IPP funding mechanisms will
continue to be a primary way for small businesses to
find ways to work on innovative research ideas. Kramer
offered this advice for companies looking to succeed in
obtaining grants for their research: "It is best not to
chase the 'hot technology' and jump on the bandwagon.
Stick to what you have knowledge and interest in. Stick
with your strengths. That's not to say don't look to
branch out or be creative, but be smart about it."