Laser Scanner Helps Recreate the Wright Bros. 1st Flight

As our frequent readers know, Direct Dimensions utilizes laser scanning in many more interesting ways than just industrial buildings and facilities. In fact, our roots in scanning start with helping to develop the FaroArm, a close range metrology tool for reverse engineering and quality control applications in the aerospace industry, where I worked back in the late 80s.

How fitting it was for me to be asked to use this 3D technology to survey one of the most treasured artifacts in the history of aerospace the original propeller from the famous aero plane credited with mans first flight the original 1903 Wright Flyer.

Lets take a deeper look at one of our early, yet more significant projects that also ties together two of the current use cases for 3D laser scanning aerospace manufacturing and historic preservation.

Advanced 3D technology for capturing history

As we all know, on December 17th in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers took the first sustained heavier-than-air flight by a human. Almost exactly 97 years later on December 11, 2000, Direct Dimensions had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform 3D laser scanning on one of the original propellers from that exact airplane. How exciting for so many reasons.

Direct Dimensions had been approached by the Wright Experience, a Virginia-based company that rebuilds historical airplanes, about re-creating the first Wright Brothers plane for the upcoming centennial celebration in 2003. This project would of course require an exact reproduction of the two propellers, now very famous historic and cultural artifacts on public display separately in two major U.S. museums The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC and the Wright Bros. National Park in Kitty Hawk, NC.

Of course back in 1998, getting exposure for our relatively new concept of 3D laser scanning at either of these amazing institutions was my primary driver. We hoped the idea of creating 3D digital models of physical items such as this would be of great interest to historians, conservators, museum officials, and perhaps even the press. This opportunity seemed about as good as it gets.

A new tool for museums

Well in advance of the then upcoming 100th anniversary celebration of this first flight planned for December 2003, several of our engineers, along with our partners at the U.S. Army at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in Maryland, all traveled about an hour west from Baltimore to a major restoration facility for the U.S. National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We brought along our then latest 3D scanning technologies an 8-foot, 7-axis Silver FARO Arm paired with a Kreon KLS171 Laser Line Scanner. This combination of portable articulating laser line scanning was very new technology at the time. We had only just recently integrated these two tools together.

The engineers at the Wright Experience needed accurate 3D dimensions from the original propeller as flown by the Wright Brothers. Our job was to reverse engineer the complex airfoil shape into an accurate 3D CAD model. From this data, the famous propeller could be analyzed virtually with advanced CFD (computational fluid design) software to understand its performance, and then also be used to fabricate accurate replicas using CNC machining.

The combination of 3D imaging technology with aerospace reverse engineering experience proved ideal for this very exciting project. Within minutes, the non-contact laser scanner captured the entire complex shape of the hand carved wood propeller by generating a dense 3D point cloud representing the shape of the wood.

At that point we returned to our offices in Baltimore and began processing this 3D raw data cloud into Nurbs-based CAD geometry to represent the historic hand carved air foil surfaces in math equations. Back then, in case you are interested, we used Imageware software to post-process the point cloud data. We consider Imageware the original point cloud software tool and we still marvel at how advanced it was for its time. In fact, we still use it on occasion as it still has unique point cloud processing and visualization tools.

Exciting work, technology, science, and history

Were not sure who was more excited about this project: our engineering team for getting to see and work with the original Wright Bros. propeller, or the Park Service conservation team for getting to see our fancy 3D laser scanner technologies!

There are several reasons why this project was so interesting for us at Direct Dimensions. For one, several of our engineers have an aerospace background and we work regularly on modern airplanes, helicopters, satellites, and missiles – all of which came from the Wright Bros. work. It is also interesting since the FaroArm was originally conceived specifically for the measurement of a specific modern airplane component, called a thrust reverser. And it is also very interesting since Direct Dimensions performs many projects for capturing and documenting historically significant artifacts.

We continued working with the Wright Experience team for several more years to 3D capture about a dozen other original Wright Bros. propellers from 1903 thru 1911 located in various museums and collections around the country. Most of these propellers were also reverse engineered and remanufactured for other Wright airplane model replicas. In addition, several of these digital propeller models were analyzed tested by NASA and Air Force engineers to better understand the performance of these early designs.

Regarding these tests performed by NASA, as I understand from the engineering historians during the project, by 1911 the Wright Bros. essentially perfected the propeller to some 80 percent power efficiency. Today’s best propellers produce about 85 percent efficiency. Think about that as compared to todays engineering armed with massive computing power. NASA is still trying to figure out how the Wright Bros. did that!

Direct Dimensions is proud to have been part of such a historically significant project using what we think will become historically significant 3D technology one day. Over the years that have followed since this project, we have applied similar state of the art 3D scanning technologies to many famous objects such as the Liberty Bell, the Lincoln Memorial, and many aircraft including just last month NASAs Global Hawk AUV.

Please visit the Wright Experience to learn more about Wright Bros. airplane propellers.