Research through Design of airplanes

DxD Showcase, Week 10: Design Research, BDES1003

What is the product or service?

An airplane is a powered, fixed-wing aircraft that is propelled forward by thrust from a jet engine, propeller or rocket engine. Airplanes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and wing configurations. The broad spectrum of uses for airplanes includes recreation, transportation of goods and people, military, and research. Worldwide, commercial aviation transports more than four billion passengers annually on airliners.

The essential components of an airplane are a wing system to sustain it in flight, tail surfaces to stabilize the wings, movable surfaces to control the attitude of the plane in flight, and a power plant to provide the thrust necessary to push the vehicle through the air. Provision must be made to support the plane when it is at rest on the ground and during takeoff and landing. Most planes feature an enclosed body (fuselage) to house the crew, passengers, and cargo; the cockpit is the area from which the pilot operates the controls and instruments to fly the plane.

When was it first made available? Who is responsible for creating it?

An old joke says that you should not be afraid of flying, but rather of not flying. In August 1896, the German engineer Otto Lilienthal tragically captured the reality of this phrase when he lost his life 36 hours after his glider plummeted to earth. He was not the only aviation pioneer who would die as a result of not being able to master the control of his flying device.

Lilienthal’s death was especially significant for two Dayton brothers dedicated to the repair and sale of bicycles, and who had followed the progress of the German with great interest. The news of the fatal accident was the definitive trigger for Wilbur (April 16, 1867 — May 30, 1912) and Orville Wright (August 19, 1871 — January 30, 1948) to apply their knowledge of bicycle mechanics to a hobby that they had been working on for years. Wilbur, the eldest of the two, was the one who dragged his brother into what they called “the problem of flight,” which they viewed as a challenge on three different fronts. Photo shows the first glider designed by the Wright brothers.

The handling of the airplane was the subject of the first patent of the Wright brothers, presented in March 1903. On December 17 of that same year, they achieved their best-known feat, to take off in their first propeller-propelled device, the Wright Flyer I. But by that time, Wilbur and Orville Wright had already made their essential contribution, the one by which they can be considered the legitimate inventors of the airplane: the control of movement in the three spatial axes, a concept that continues in force more than a century later. Photo shows the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer in 1903. The machine traveled 36.6 meters in 12 seconds.

What inspired it/what is it based on?

The first ideas of making an object that can rise from the ground in a heavier than air apparatus was essentially solved from ancient times. Some of the earliest recorded attempts with gliders were those by the 9th-century poet Abbas ibn Firnas and the 11th-century monk Eilmer of Malmesbury. Both experiments injured their pilots. The example of Leonardo da Vinci is presumably well known the most. When the Wright brothers were ready to build their first glider, they copied the design of the biplane previously created by their contemporaries like Octave Chanute and Augustus Herring.

  • Airplane by Abbas ibn Firnas (9th century)
  • Airplane by Eilmer of Malmesbury (11th century)
  • Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Flying Machines” (16th century)

Most people probably associate Leonardo da Vinci with his great works of art, like the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” but this Renaissance man was more than just a great painter — he was also an inspired inventor.

Da Vinci sketched out his ideas in notepads, many of which have been preserved since his death in 1519. And while there’s no evidence that any of da Vinci’s contraptions were built during his lifetime, these sketches show that some of his ideas were revolutionary. Da Vinci’s designs featured a pair of enormous wings connected to a wooden frame, inside of which an intrepid pilot could lie facedown and move the wings up and down by turning a crank that moved a series of rods and pulleys. The wings of da Vinci’s famed flying machine were inspired by those of a bat.
  • Octave Chanute’s airplane (20th century)
  • Augustus Herring’s airplane (20th century)

In what ways does it relate to the readings this week?

In the chapter Research through Design from the book The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, 2nd Ed, the authors, Pieter Stappers and Elisa Giaccardi discuss research for design and research through design. They are saying that both operative terms ‘research’ and ‘design’ come with a variety of meanings, connotations, and expectations. And often these are left vague and undefined. The purpose of research is seen as the production of knowledge that others can use in other areas than the producer of the knowledge is working on. Despite such differences, design and research activities can be surprisingly similar — both aim to create something new, building on what was known before. The Wright brothers could not have gained any success without research. They were making attempt after attempt by changing the design while practicing, testing and experiencing. When they were creating the design of the airplane a lot of challenges were faced, such as: propulsion, controlling the flight, creating an intrinsic stability to the device, controlling the pitch, so brothers had to observe the flight of birds and redo design again and again.

“In the definition of ‘doing design’, we use the term ‘solution’ to indicate that a realization — albeit of an experimental nature — is typically part of RtD. Some uses of the term ‘design’ stop at the making of a proposal in the form of a vision, illustration, or storyboard. In RtD, often the struggle with the elements of realization is considered an important part of the work. The improvement strived for in designing can concern problems (e.g., bad elements of an existing situation) or opportunities (e.g., possibilities of new technologies).” -say Pieter and Elisa. These words can be applied to a Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Flying Machines”. Leonardo made a series of careful sketches based not on the research, but on his inspiration. Unfortunately, da Vinci never built the device, but even if he had, it likely wouldn’t have been a success. The machine had no engine, so it’s unclear how it would get off the ground. And even if da Vinci flew his machine off a high cliff, it’s unlikely that he would have returned to Earth in one piece. That proves that research and design are inseparable terms indeed. Without practice, making artifacts (refers to a man-made thing, usually a material object, they are playing an important role, because many researchers regard the things made by designers to be core to RtD) and prototypes (precursor of a mass-produced product, which shares its material qualities, but will undergo testing and development during implementation) the design may not work.

Research through the design of airplanes is truly unique. It took many centuries for people to figure out the principles of creating an airplane, dealing with challenges and making conclusions based on previous efforts/findings.

What can we learn from the history of airplane development? What are the potential design implications and opportunities?

The thing we definitely can learn from airplane invention is that without research and practice even a genius with revolutionary thinking will not be able to bring it to the successful end. Design requires research and loads of attempts. The activities of observation, measurement, interview, literature review, analysis, and validation, which are part of many design approaches, clearly come under ‘research’. The idea of such a flying machine was born in the 9th century (approximately) and the world would have had to wait another 9000 years or so for a machine that could really fly, if in 1903 that brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had not decided to start the research and finally made their first successful flight in a powered aircraft.

Opportunities of an airplane are obvious. Nowadays traveling by air is one of the quickest ways to reach the desirable destination. Airplanes are used in war, for goods delivery and for people to move from place to place. Moreover, statistics show that flying is the safest way of traveling.

Discussion Questions:

  • What other inventions do you know which was born back in the past and it took centuries to make them work?
  • What other famous people you heard had such revolutionary ideas that were the way ahead of time?
  • Did you know that aircraft is the safest way to move from destination to destination? What is your attitude towards flights?