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The Dublin schoolboy who may have cracked the solution to flocks of birds crippling an airplane's engines

17-year-old Omar Salem has designed a device to protect a jet engine’s turbofans from being struck by foreign objects.

shutterstock_713758882 Source: Shutterstock/Aijiro

IF YOU’VE SEEN the movie Sully – Miracle on the Hudson, you’ll understand that foreign objects and an airplane’s engines do not make for a good combination.

Bird strikes (which caused US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A320, to ditch [land on water] memorably into the Hudson River in New York in January 2009) are just one example of the perils a jetliner faces from debris and animal intervention when taking off.

And don’t think such an occurrence is rare. Just five months ago an Aer Lingus flight out of Naples in Italy was forced to turn back after hitting a flock of pigeons.

A plane that has its engine(s) compromised is not only hugely dangerous, it’s an expensive piece of equipment to lose to chance.

You mightn’t expect to look for a solution to the problem in the Dublin suburbs. But that’s where you might find it.

17-year-old Omar Salem is only in fifth year at Sutton Park School, north of the city, at present. He won’t sit his Leaving Cert until 2019. That hasn’t stopped him developing a system to curb the issue of engine strikes.

2017-04-05 12.23.10 Omar Salem

His project, Protecting Turbofans from Foreign Object Damage, was commended at January’s BT Young Scientist exhibition at the RDS. It was Omar’s second year in a row to appear at the competition (last year, he designed his own aircraft).

Next up is the SciFest National Final (he’s one of the finalists) on 10 November at the Marino Conference Centre in Dublin.

It’s a pretty-impressive résumé for a teenager, to put it mildly. Not that you’d know it to talk to him – Omar gives all the appearances of being unflappable.

“Basically it’s a multi-element autonomous system, based in the front of the engine, to detect foreign objects, intercept them, and either store or expel them,” he tells TheJournal.ie with regard to his project.

It does all this without affecting the overall aerodynamics of the aircraft.

He used state-of-the-art computer aided design, computational fluid dynamics and finite element analysis software in DCU to create a system ‘that can detect and intercept foreign object damage with speed and precision’.

It’s easily fitted onto the jet engine of any passenger aircraft. If it were to take off, as it were,  it has the potential to save airlines millions in damage to their aircraft, and ultimately save lives.

Photography by http://adrianlangtry.com Source: Adrian Langtry

Omar first got the idea, he says, when considering the issue of bird strikes.

“I knew they were a problem, so I wanted to set out to solve that problem,” he says.

I started it in September of last year, and it’s still in development now – but I’m fortunate to have gotten a lot of help, and as regards the actual engine simulations, DCU have been very helpful.

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So if an unfortunate goose (a flock of Canada geese being the downfall of the Miracle on the Hudson plane) were to fly into the path of Omar’s device, what exactly happens?

“The goose enters the device and triggers a series of laser trips. A linear actuator moves up to capture the goose, and, depending on the situation, will either store it or expel it,” he says.

2 A rendition of Omar's device, fitted in front of the turbofan on a plane's engine


For the moment, there’s the SciFest final to come in two weeks’ time. But what happens next?

“I haven’t patented it yet, but I’m looking into it,” Omar says of his device. At present, the big aeronautical companies don’t know about it. That may change.

I’ve kind of gotten by on the expensive parts of the project, but if it’s to go into actual development it will require funding.

As for Omar’s own plans, he’s looking at a future in aerospace engineering. It probably won’t be in Ireland though.

“I’m looking at some of the big engineering colleges abroad, like MIT (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) or Imperial College in London,” he says.

They’re not easy to get into, but I’ll definitely try.

Somehow, you get the feeling that if he wants to go somewhere, he’ll manage to do just that.

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