Archive for Thursday, January 9, 1992


January 9, 1992


Ron Barrett, a Kansas University doctoral student, didn't think a hobby would generate more public interest than his regular line of research.

"It blew my mind that my hobby beat out some multimillion-dollar projects," said Barrett, pointing to a copy of Popular Mechanics magazine.

Barrett, a graduate student in aerospace engineering, is featured in the magazine's February issue for his work on "smart structures," demonstrated by a tiny boat that swims like a fish.

Barrett said he made the nine-inch boat last year as a challenge to the aerospace engineering students he was teaching as a grad student.

"I wanted to show them that I wasn't one of those teachers that didn't know what I was talking about," he said. He then completed a project he had been toying with as a hobby.

He created the boat called a solid-state aquatic vehicle with a tail that can twist and bend in response to electrical impulses. The benefit, he says, would be efficient and quiet propulsion of ships.

The boat is featured in a Popular Mechanics article along with an illustration on the first page in the technology update section of the magazine. Barrett says he was surprised that his invention was played higher in the section than some large-scale projects, which are described in the pages following the article on his boat.

"I just pursued this as a hobby," he said, adding that his normal research area trying to produce airplane wing designs with better lift is different from designing boats.

The tail of Barrett's boat makes it unique. It is bonded with piezoelectric material, a ceramic-like substance that expands and contracts in response to an electrical impulse. The material also can work the opposite way, that is, convert a mechanical force to an electrical impulse. A common example of piezoelectric material working this way is a flat, touch-sensitive control button on a microwave oven. When pushed, it converts the mechanical force to an electrical charge.

WHEN ATTACHED with wires to a small battery pack, the boat's tail makes 22 swipes per second, propelling the craft through the water at 0.6 knots, or 0.69 mph.

"When the tail wiggles, it propels and controls the boat like a fish tail," Barrett said. "It's not going to break any speed records or anything, but it's a start."

As alternating current from the battery pack reaches the piezoelectric material on the boat's tail, the material contracts and expands, causing the tail to move. The greater the amount of electrical current, the greater the speed of the tail, Barrett said.

He said larger versions of the boat an oil tanker 700 feet long, for instance could be propelled through water at 30 knots, or 34.5 mph with a 100-foot tail.

Barrett says a tail would require less energy than a propeller to move a boat. Also, the fish-like motion of the tail would make it virtually silent in the water, which would be an advantage to the Navy.

The same concept could be used in helicopter blades and airplane and missile wings to make them more responsive to atmospheric pressures.

Piezoelectric material is similar to a thin ceramic and easily can be cracked.

BARRETT HAS developed a special process for bonding the material to fiberglass or other objects to protect it from cracking. The process is patented in Barrett's name and was part of his master's thesis work.

He said he already has consulted with major aircraft and helicopter companies that are interested in using the process.

However, companies have not yet tested the technology.

"It's just in the research stage right now," he said. "A lot of improvements have to be made in materials, but it's something that we could see in the future."

The technology in his boat is called "smart" because it automatically could be programmed to help aircraft become more stable, or help guide missiles to targets.

Barrett also is the recipient of an $8,000 NASA space grant fellowship for the current school year. His work on smart missile wings was featured in the November issue of Research & Development magazine.

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