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Centre for Aerospace Research positions UVic as premier Canadian research hub for sustainable aviation

Photo: CfAR and Bombardier are collaborating on the innovative EcoJet research project, aiming to reduce aircraft emissions by 50%. Pictured here, members from both teams standing behind one of the aircraft models.

by Ivan Watson

One of the University of Victoria’s (UVic)—and Canada’s—best kept secrets is located within a former hanger on the grounds of the Victoria International Airport. There, inside its nondescript walls, UVic’s Centre for Aerospace Research (CfAR) is a bustling hub of industrial activity, where dozens of engineers, staff and students design, develop, manufacture and flight test next-generation technologies for top partners in the Canadian and global aerospace industries. Collaborating with world-leading companies such as Bombardier, Boeing and Embraer, and government agencies such as Canada’s Department of National Defense (DND), National Research Council (NRC) and the U.S. Air Force, CfAR has established itself as the premier research centre in Canada for end-to-end development of a range of innovative and experimental aviation technologies.

“Our goal from the very beginning has always been to create close synergies with industry,” explains Dr. Afzal Suleman, CfAR director, who founded the centre in 2012. “Our research and projects are driven by industry needs and we have the experience, expertise and advanced technologies onsite to offer a range of services that are both cost effective and world class in terms of quality. It’s a powerful combination that is increasingly being recognised by our partners; and a clear win-win for both sides.”

Dr. Suleman is a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Computational and Experimental Mechanics and recognized world leader in next generation aerospace transportation systems and aeronautical design. Under his leadership, CfAR’s mission has been to spur innovation and attention to the positive role aerial vehicles can play in the betterment of society. Since its beginnings more than a decade ago, CfAR has grown from strength to strength and expanded its range of offerings to include turn-key research services, design, fabrication, ground testing, flight testing and operations for a wide range of potential applications in the aviation and aerospace fields.

CfAR expertise is crucial to the success of Bombardier’s industry-leading EcoJet research project

On January 24, 2024, Bombardier, one of Canada’s top aerospace companies, acknowledged UVic as their first announced academic partner in the pan-Canadian EcoJet research project, which explores blended wing body (BWB) aircraft configuration and advanced new technologies to reduce business jets emission by up to 50%. The technology has the potential to transform the Canadian and global aerospace industries and to forge a new path forward in the field of sustainable aviation technologies. CfAR has taken a critical and leading role in the project with scale model design, manufacture and flight testing.

“Bombardier is our biggest partner and our work with them has taken the work of CfAR to another level,” says Dr. Suleman. “The aircraft design is revolutionary and the EcoJet will be very advanced and environmentally friendly with significantly reduced emissions. It has been a pleasure and a privilege for us to be a part of its development and to work closely with Bombardier—a top Canadian and global company committed to excellence and innovation in all aspects of their work.”

Bombardier has equally praised CfAR for their contributions to the EcoJet research project, emphasizing the mutual benefits of academic and industrial partnerships to advance innovation and industrial design in Canada.

“Bombardier is proud to support forward-looking aerospace research all while involving a broad network of academic institutions,” says Stephen McCullough, Senior Vice President of Engineering and Product Development at Bombardier. “Now that we have publicly disclosed some aspects of the first phases of the EcoJet flight-testing program, it is important for us to give credit and to share the phenomenal response with our partners who are instrumental to this dimension of the research project. Collaboration between local businesses and top academic institutions is key in nurturing a strong and thriving Canadian aerospace industry. Our hand-in-hand work with the University of Victoria is a meaningful example of such innovation pathway that stimulates coast-to-coast skill transfer and talent development.’’

CfAR is training the next generation of global aerospace leaders and innovators

Nurturing top talent is key to CfAR’s continued success and one of the centre’s most important goals is to provide high-level, hands-on and experiential learning opportunities for Master’s and PhD students from a broad range of engineering, computing and scientific backgrounds.

“Our students, both from UVic and coming to us from our global partner institutions, get to work in a very dynamic environment and receive training on exciting projects with top industrial companies,” explains Dr. Suleman. “They are learning by doing and working on all aspects of design and manufacture, gaining the real ‘A to Z’ training experience where being agile, nimble and results-focussed is highly valued and core to our collective success.”

CfAR alumni are sought after in the global aerospace job market, with former students having gone on to exciting careers in top companies throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

“They gain experience here that is unique and broad-based, learning about avionics systems, flight sciences, integration, mechanical design, and so much more,” says Dr. Suleman. “The work is very interdisciplinary, so we have students in mechanical engineering and computer science and electrical working side by side, problem-solving, project managing and seeing the results of their efforts. They are ready on ‘day one’ to walk into a top job in the aerospace industry and our alumni success stories attest to that.”

CfAR’s leadership draws from the ranks of top UVic alumni

Jay Matlock, current CfAR manager, is one such success story. He completed both his BEng and MASc degrees in mechanical engineering from UVic and started at the centre while still a student.

“I was hired on before even graduating from my undergraduate degree in 2016,” says Matlock. “Soon after, I started my Master’s degree, supervised by Dr. Suleman, while working full-time at the centre as well. It was the perfect opportunity to turn theory in practice.”

Taking intelligent risks and pushing boundaries is core to CfAR’s culture of success, both in terms of developing next generation technologies as well as providing unique opportunities for talent at all levels of the organization to thrive.

“I’m very fortunate to be one of the engineers who has the amazing opportunity of traveling to partner sites around the world and getting out in the field to do flight testing,” says Matlock. ”There’s nothing quite like the feeling of flying an aircraft that you’ve been working on for years and years, seeing it all the way through from design to manufacturing to testing. CfAR provides so many opportunities for all of us who work here to get some incredible experience that isn’t available anywhere else.”

Individual expertise combines for high performance teamwork

“When I think about the secret ingredient in our success, I’d have to give credit where credit is due, and that is to our hardworking and brilliant team members,” says Matlock. “Everyone from co-op students to senior engineers get to test out new ideas and really take responsibilities for their own designs. What makes us unique is that whole team approach, where someone could have an idea on a Monday and we’d be working together testing out a prototype on Friday that same week. This is such an exciting and rewarding place to work and we can see that impact of our efforts in the world all around us.”

Dr. Suleman notes that student researchers at CfAR have come from all around Canada, the U.S., and several European countries, while ongoing research partnerships with international organizations such as NATO and the European Union promise to keep the centre busy on high level, and highly confidential, projects for many years to come.

Leaving a legacy of innovation for a better world

Part of the attraction to CfAR is the ability to work on projects that align with core student values related to sustainability and innovation for a healthier environment. UVic is recognised as the top university in Canada—and third globally—for climate action by the 2023 Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings, in no small part due to success stories like CfAR’s track record of continued innovation for a more sustainable aviation industry.

This strong commitment to values-based research, education and industrial design, helps attract and retain top talent to CfAR.

“There are so many benefits to the work we are doing at the centre on more sustainable aircraft design that will reduce emissions significantly,” explains Matlock. “In particular, blended wing aircraft have the potential for so many efficiency gains and my hope is that that they will become the norm in Canada and globally. I, and all of our team members, are exceptionally proud and excited to be working on technologies that are not only technically challenging, but have the potential to positively transform the world now and for future generations.”

For more information about CfAR, please visit the centre’s website. For information about the range of opportunities available to study in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science, please visit the faculty page.