Across the country, the trend toward interdisciplinary approaches to learning is on the rise. As technologies advance and unpredictable consequences appear, an understanding of diverse disciplines and schools of thought are necessary to solving emerging challenges. At UND, a number of programs and areas of emphasis have developed to address the challenges faced by undergraduate and graduate students heading into a more diverse workplace than ever before.
One such approach can be found in the School of Engineering and Mines’ Mechanical and Electrical Engineering departments. UND students have the option in both departments to earn their bachelor’s degrees with a concentration in Aerospace, which includes earning a private pilot license.
For an engineer intending to work in the aerospace field, having an understanding of the field’s unique challenges makes sense. According to Ben Trapnell, Associate Professor of Aviation, “The standards for the manufacture and certification of (aeronautical) instruments are extremely rigorous.”
Instruments designed by electrical engineers must function in environments where they will be subjected to intense vibration, temperature changes, pressure changes, and they must do so without fail. “The last thing you want at 30,000 feet, when the world is going to heck around you, in a passenger jet carrying 400 people is that 'blue screen of death' you get [on your computer,]” says Trapnell.
The same is true for mechanical engineers designing payloads that must be balanced, and necessarily impact every other area of a design. The Mechanical Engineering department has been working with the School of Aerospace Sciences for the past four years on unmanned aerial systems.
According to William Semke, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, there are many applications for this work. “In military applications we’re looking at a potential enemy; in civilian applications we’re looking at crop health, grazing patterns, flood investigations and police work, all which has with both military and civilian applications.”
Part of the work for a mechanical engineer, says Semke, is putting the “smarts” on board. “We have to make the plane smart enough so it doesn’t run into things. We develop sensors and technologies so [the plane] it can autonomously avoid obstacles.”
Aerospace works with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) establishing appropriate guidelines for training pilots and sensor operators, as well as developing radar systems to monitor airspace.
Learning these skills on the job would be impractical and time-consuming. “Students need to understand the regulatory environment, why the regulations are there and the risks they are trying to mitigate,” says Trapnell. Students who understand the regulatory environment are not only more cost effective for the company, they are also better equipped to adapt to subsequent regulatory changes.
Broadening their knowledge of the distinct challenges faced in aeronautical applications tests an engineer’s creativity as much as their aptitude. As missions change and technologies advance, there is no substitute for a strong foundational knowledge of this demanding environment.
Craig A. Garaas-Johnson, News & Features Editor
University of North Dakota, "Combined Programs" (2011). UND News Features. 5.