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An Electric Airplane and Experiments with Seismic Waves – What Is Being Developed at SIP Zurich?

Author: Stefan Hotz, © Neue Zürcher Zeitung

Switzerland Innovation Park Zurich is not a construction project – not yet anyway. However, students from ETH Zurich have been carrying out research there for years. A look into the hangars.

Author: Stefan Hotz, © Neue Zürcher Zeitung*

The hull is a construction set – a kit airplane from South Africa that needs to be riveted and screwed together by the students. The engine will also be self-built, but requires a high level of technical knowledge. A dozen students from ETH Zurich are building probably the world’s first electric airplane with four seats.

E-Sling is the name of the ETH Zurich focus project. The budding electrical and mechanical engineers are spending eight months developing a sports plane that runs solely on electricity. When we asked about the biggest obstacle they faced during this time, young software engineer Timo Kleger, who is happy to provide visitors with information, answered that it was achieving the necessary battery energy density.

The batteries are installed at the front of the wings and must be able to store the maximum amount of electricity possible for an airplane in relation to their weight and volume. In order to increase the range, the wingspan had to be increased by one meter.

For some of the students in the group, the electric airplane is the subject of their bachelor’s thesis. “We are getting 12 additional credits on top of the 14 for the focus project,” explained Timo Kleger. He continued that for this reason alone, all of this hard work was not worth the effort, but that he was not just taking part in this project for the credits. The opportunity to build an airplane in his ETH foundation course is a sufficient incentive for him.

The testing grounds for preparing the E-Sling to fly was the smallest problem they have had to face. This is because the workshop filled with all types of devices and electrical equipment is in Hangar 3 of the Dübendorf Airfield. The roll-out is scheduled for the start of October. Afterwards, the airplane will undergo extensive testing on the runway in front of the hangar.

The Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA), which along with many more sponsors is very interested in the project, will likely certify the airplane by the end of the year. The students do not have a background in aviation. The first flight is scheduled to be carried out next spring by a test pilot of the FOCA’s choosing.

A Globally Unique Laboratory

“The airplane will get off the ground,” said a confident René Kalt, Director of the Stiftung Innovationspark Zürich. The electronic airplane is a great example of the synthesis of innovation and aviation. This objective is now being pursued across the entire airfield – the result of the overall assessment published just under two weeks ago. The focus is being placed on research areas that are reliant on an air strip or otherwise on large testing areas. Specifically, this means the areas of mobility, robotics, aviation and space travel.

Hangar 3 is also playing host to a number of other student projects, such as the electric race car being developed by the AMZ Racing team (Academic Motorsports Club Zurich) with which the team holds the world record for acceleration – from 0 to 100 km/h in 1.513 seconds. Or Swissloop, a vehicle that is taking part in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop competition to find the fastest rail vehicle. Lesser known are the developments in rocket engineering. In the hangar, the ARIS team (Akademische Raumfahrt Initiative Zürich – Academic Space Travel Initiative Zurich) are racking their brains over the development of a new propulsion drive with solid and liquid fuel.

The importance of the innovation park to ETH Zurich is reflected in the fact that it has invested several million francs in the hangar. A large share of this has been spent on a large concrete box and, most notably, what is going on inside. In this box, Dirk-Jan van Manen and other geoscientists are experimenting with seismic waves in order to generate three-dimensional images. The massive shell is needed to shield the sensitive equipment from all of the other disruptive waves.

A vibrometer with a monstrous robotic arm measures vibrations within a granite block without making contact. Using this method, rock formations can be analyzed in the same way as if they were at their original location. This allows, for example, for unstable slopes to be monitored for their condition prior to a possible landslide, but also storage areas for radioactive waste or buildings and bridges.

The room also has a large water tank for experiments with acoustic waves and high-performance computers for real-time calculations. According to van Manen, this is the only laboratory in the world that can generate a virtual environment for wave propagation experiments. Although these experiments do not need a large testing area, a ceiling of a specific minimum height is required. There was not enough space for the box at the ETH Zentrum and Hönggerberg locations, but it did fit in the hangar.

The University Is Also Getting on Board

There are two reasons why only university institutes are active at the innovation park. There is still no basic planning framework for new buildings, as the airfield is for the most part an agricultural area. The hangars along the edge of the airfield are in the zone for public buildings, which does not permit private companies to take up residence. Despite Dübendorf having reallocated this area as a commercial zone in 2017, the Administrative Court recently rejected an appeal against the referendum.

Nevertheless, the University of Zurich will situate its Space Hub in Hangar 4 within the next year. In addition to space travel and aviation projects as well as the further development and use of drones, the university will also carry out projects involving parabolic flight. This will allow experiments to be carried out in a simulated zero-gravity environment.

The still empty Hangar 2 will be used by ETH Zurich from next year onwards – not for student experiments however, but instead for projects that its institutes hope to press ahead with together with innovative companies. Many of these companies would have preferred to have a laboratory in the university itself, commented Nanja Strecker, ETH Project Manager for Switzerland Innovation Park Zurich: “Here, we allow for cooperations to be carried out at a single location.”

The innovation park is slowly increasing in size. Up until May, the fence separating it from the military airfield stood some ten meters in front of the hangars. It was subsequently moved by approximately 50 meters following consultation with the Swiss Armed Forces. As a result, the innovation park gained a great deal of space that it can use for tests.

At the moment, the former fire brigade building is being renovated. Here, in addition to its Büro Züri on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich Cantonal Bank is offering space to five startups that have a connection to the research being carried out at the innovation park. The wash house will soon also be available to use. This might be a place for optimizing the underwater robots developed by Tethys Robotics at the innovation park.

As the light conditions in the hangars do not meet workplace requirements, offices have been set up in the former kitchen building. Director René Kalt is very resourceful. As of recently, a lumber car with two transparent meeting rooms on the truck bed has been parked on the airfield train track. Kalt explained that he is not allowed to erect a permanent building, but he is allowed a “movable structure”. As there are barely any catering options on site, he is still looking for a discarded SBB dining car.

There’s a lot going on at Switzerland Innovation Park Zurich. This also holds true for Startbahn 29, a project being carried out by the school communities in the Glatt Valley. They hope to use this project to introduce children from third grade up to high school to the MINT subjects (Mathematics, IT, Natural Sciences, Technology). At a primary school workshop, Daniel Schaub, a teacher hired specifically for this project, is currently explaining how they can build an electric circuit that makes a small lamp glow at the workstations. This is perhaps how many people who grew up to be engineers and scientists saw the light.

* The article was originally written in German. This translation was made by Switzerland Innovation with the kind permission of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.