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Bridge between Sea and Sky

Aerospace Engineering Student Advances Take-Off Dynamics of Amphibious Aircraft

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James with an airplane engine at GE Aviation, Shanghai.
James with an airplane engine at GE Aviation, Shanghai. [Download Photo]

“My childhood dream is to make airplanes more efficient and comfortable so everybody can afford a pleasant air journey in the future,” says James SHIHUA, a Year 3 student from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

This dream started to become a reality in his second year at HKUST, when he first embarked on an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project on amphibious aircraft, which are aircraft that can take-off and land on both land and water.

For the project, James focused on a way to standardize testing for amphibious aircraft, which is one of the biggest design challenges in the industry. With the support of UROP Collaboration Fund, he spent one month at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s laboratory to conduct towing tests in water tanks in summer 2019.

James continued his research at HKUST after a semester-long exchange at the University of Michigan in USA in Fall 2019. Using the collected experimental data, he continued to work on amphibious aircraft development by joining forces with MPhil student Arjit SETH in the same department. Arjit has previously performed computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations. The data and simulations are critical in further developing a standardized equation specifically designed to evaluate the take-off performance of amphibious aircraft.

“It is surprising to me that the findings could be published in the recent American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Aviation 2020 Forum,” James says. His outstanding academic performance and leadership potential in the field also made him one of the two awardees of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) Aviation Scholarship for Outstanding Engineering Students 2019.

He is also excited about his upcoming Co-op Program with General Electric (GE) Aviation Research Centre in Shanghai, China in February 2021. “I think I will continue research on aviation in graduate school,” he adds.

James’ project, “Designing Novel Efficient and Quiet Amphibious Aircraft for General Aviation”, supervised by Prof. Rhea LIEM from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, won the championship among 22 nominations and 10 finalists in the 2020 Mr. Armin and Mrs. Lillian Kitchell Undergraduate Research Award by HKUST UROP.

“I am very excited and honored to receive the award. I hope more students can join UROP because it is unique and is one of the best ways for undergraduates to acquire knowledge,” says James.

Prof. Liem says, “I started this UROP project three years ago and along the way found that it might be too difficult for undergraduate students until I got James on board. Aircraft is a complex system, so for an aircraft that can take off and land on water – its complexity doubles. What’s more, past studies and references are scarce and limited, which makes the whole research even more challenging (and exciting!). We hope now we are a step closer to advancing amphibious aircraft design research. I would also like to use this opportunity to express my appreciation to all past UROP students, undergraduate interns, and graduate students who have contributed to this work in various ways. It takes a village to make it work!”

Check out the other winning projects here:


Student Reporter: Engineering Student Intern Chloe Chan