MIT scholar focusses on the future of aviation
February 21, 2018
Teaching his son how to make paper planes when he was four years old planted a seed.
Two years later, Arthur Brown was busy learning the names of planets and by age 10, he was building model aircrafts out of balsa wood.
It was evident that the University of Toronto (U of T) Bachelor of Applied Science graduate was destined for greatness.
Brown is one of two Canadians who made this year’s ‘Tomorrow’s Technology Leaders: The 20 Twenties’ award list.
He’s completing his Master’s in aeronautics & astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Announced by Aviation Week Network in conjunction with the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics (AIAA), the award recognizes students who are nominated by their universities on the basis of their academic performance, civic contribution and research or design project.
It is part of an over-arching effort to bring together technology hiring managers, students and faculty to recognize the full circle of what is required for business and academic success. The students begin building a network comprised of the technical experts who have built the industry, the universities gain visibility for high-quality educational opportunity provided to the students, and hiring managers gain knowledge about the best of the best in the next generation of aerospace talent.
Ranked the top university in the world in the last six years, MIT’s aeronautical & manufacturing engineering program is also number one.
Just three months shy of graduating, Brown -- whose primary research and career interests are in the field of aircraft clean-sheet design and multidisciplinary optimization – said attending a university with a superior academic reputation and high selectivity has its advantages.
“I use my MIT email address as sort of a networking tool,” he said. “If there are individuals or companies that I am interested in talking to, I send them an introductory email and request a meeting via Skype or in person. The idea for my research project came from the chief technical officer at Terrafugia who I met in San Francisco last year. He proposed the idea of me developing, not quite what I developed, but something similar.”
Terrafugia is a Chinese-owned company based in Massachusetts that’s developing a roadable aircraft and a flying car.
MIT also offers a very competitive research environment that appeals to Brown who has a collegial studies, pure & applied science diploma from Marianopolis College in Quebec.
“I really do my best work when I am surrounded by people that are hard workers and really smart,” he pointed out. “That’s something I prefer. At U of T, I was interested in aircraft design. It is a terrific university and the people there are great, but I didn’t know a lot of people with that interest. Now, I am surrounded by people who are doing similar projects and I can bounce ideas off them.”
Brown’s research focuses on on-demand aviation, specifically an air taxi service using autonomous, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) battery-powered electric aircraft.
“I am looking at the design of the vehicles – how much they weigh, how much will they cost and how do the economics work,” he said. “In one of the studies I did, I looked at New York City which already has air taxi services and I was able to show that if you do that with an electric air taxi system, it would cost about 10 times less, not counting taxes and a few other things.”
Two years ago, Uber released a white paper detailing exactly how it wants to integrate electric VTOL multirotor air taxis into its mid-range transport system.
“In the long-term, one of the things that Uber wants to do is make their vehicles autonomous which is risky for a variety of reasons,” Brown, who completed high school in Montreal, noted. “I was however able to show that if you can do that, it’s technologically possible and if you can reduce the cost of your batteries, a ride in a service like this would cost as about as much as an Uber ride costs today. If we solve the difficult technical problems, we have a system that’s suitable for the masses. This has the potential to be a mass transit system that can revolutionize how people get around. The noise factor is a concern and I am still trying to figure that out.”
Brown’s advisor is Dr. Wesley Harris, the first African-American to receive a PhD. in engineering at Princeton University in 1968.
“Arthur’s motivation is high and he has the ability to focus on the details while understanding the impact of his research,” said Harris who established MIT’s first Office of Minority Education in 1975 in order to help retain minority students and improve their performance and has been head of the aeronautics & astronautics department for the last 15 years.
When Brown was accepted to MIT, Harris was his academic advisor while Warren “Woody” Hoburg was his research advisor. When Hoburg left to join the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) astronaut candidate class, Brown asked Harris to be his thesis advisor.
He graciously accepted.
“Harris is very hands-off,” said Brown who, as an aerodynamics engineer at MIT Beaver Works, completed the aerodynamic design of the Jungle Hawk Owl medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV. “I have a tremendous amount of freedom to really just pursue ideas. And, when it comes to funding, Harris is consistently there and that’s what I really needed. He is always looking out for me and his students.”
After graduation in June, Brown plans to intern in the summer with an aerospace company in Boston before starting his doctorate later this year at MIT.
Prior to heading south of the border in 2016, he made history by becoming the first Canadian university student to win an AIAA international design challenge.
Contestants were required to submit a design for a long-range uninhabited strike vehicle that could fly autonomously for approximately 1,000 nautical miles, drop 4,000 pounds of bombs on a predesignated target and then return to base.
He spent nearly a year researching and working on the project. The submission included an 80-page report and the design named the Goshawk which was about 122,000 pounds in order to meet most of the requirements.
Professor Steve Brandt of the United States Air Force Academy department of aeronautics was very impressed with Brown’s design.
“The particularly challenging aspect of this design problem was the extreme range which required a very high fuel fraction,” he said. “As a result, students couldn’t simply find an existing aircraft with similar characteristics to use in sizing this new design. They were required to model the design mission and the aircraft empty weight fraction, and then size the aircraft so that it met the required mission radius. The student who did this most accurately concluded that the aircraft weight would likely need to be over 100,000 pounds which was correct.
“Brown was tenacious in making sure his design ‘closed’. He made an initial prediction of size based on historical data, concluded that it would not meet the mission requirements and then went through two more complete sizing iterations until he arrived at a solution that worked. This is very commendable and demonstrates the commitment to quality engineering work that AIAA wants to promote in new engineers.”
At U of T, Brown was also part of Blue Sky Solar Racing that redesigned airfoils for the solar car using XFoil and the Stratford Pressure Recovery method. He left the team in March 2015 because of over-riding academic commitments.
The eldest of three siblings, Brown -- an officer of MIT’s Academy of Courageous Minority Engineers and a member of the Graduate Student Council’s diversity and inclusion sub-committee - didn’t have to look far for role models.
His father, Dr. Lancelot Brown – who was born in Montreal and raised in Jamaica – was a captain in the Canadian Armed Forces Dental Services for eight years before opening a private practice in Toronto in 1992. Over the years, he has donated countless scholarships to students pursuing post-secondary education.
Brown’s mother, Dr. Jae-Marie Ferdinand, migrated from Trinidad & Tobago at age three and is a general paediatrician & neonatologist at Montreal Children’s Hospital and an associate professor at McGill University.
“Whereas it’s not surprising to us that Arthur is excelling at this level as it is expected considering the sustained investment made in his education by his parents from his infancy until now, it’s nonetheless most satisfying to witness the degree to which he has sought out and seized opportunities presented to him and converted them into measurable advancements in his career,” said the family patriarch.
Brown and the other future technology leaders will be honoured during Aviation Week’s 61st annual Laureates Awards on March 1 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.