The CFD Lab

The Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) Laboratory in the Department of Mechanical Engineering specializes in the research and development of complex 3D modeling software for use by the aerospace industry.


Right now, CFD lab research is chiefly oriented towards the development of both simulation software and anti-icing technology for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including attack drones used by the U.S. military to kill people. The simulation software developed by the CFD lab is called FENSAP-ICE, and it is used both to optimize the design of the drone itself and to develop discrete anti-icing systems. Advances in this field have been very important for Western militaries that increasingly rely on drones for attack power. In the course of filling the skies with armed UAVs, the United States and other countries have encountered specific physical constraints, and perhaps the foremost amongst these has been bad weather. As lab director Dr. Wagdi Habashi noted in a 2009 paper, UAV missions during the NATO “engagement in Afghanistan” were marked by “unforeseen mid-level icing encounters.” This signaled a need for new forms of ice protection, to be modeled and refined with FENSAP-ICE.1 CFD lab research aims to solve a specific technological problem affecting military strategy: the need for versatile and resilient drones that can fly at high speeds and altitudes, and that can complete their missions in cold, icy conditions if necessary.

The lab is funded in large part by aerospace manufacturers Bombardier, CAE, and Bell Helicopter Textron, all of which are invested in the advancement of military objectives. In August 2013, Montréal-based CAE entered into an agreement potentially worth $100 million with the United States Air Force to train drone pilots. The technology required to fulfill this contract is precisely what CFD lab research is structured to provide. Bombardier is also in the business of military flight training, and Bell Helicopter makes military helicopters. These relationships, and the fact that nearly all CFD lab research is oriented towards the development of a commercial product, raise the question of whether research priorities are set by academics or by the R&D departments of the for-profit companies funding the lab.

A figure in a 2004 paper represents "static pressure and streamlines on fixed-wing UAV".

A figure in a 2004 paper represents “static pressure and streamlines on fixed-wing UAV.”

In 2004, Dr. Habashi co-authored a paper called “FENSAP-ICE Applications to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” with engineers from the unmanned air combat systems division of Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor which manufactures the Global Hawk, Fire Scout, and Hunter UAVs for the U.S. military.2

In addition to directing the CFD lab, Dr. Habashi acts as the CEO of Newmerical Technologies, a company operating out of a McGill office which sells the product of the CFD lab’s research, FENSAP-ICE, to aerospace companies, including military UAV manufacturers. Because Newmerical is a private company, it’s harder to obtain information about its activities, and therefore harder to get a clear picture of the ultimate applications of research being done at McGill, a public institution. But we do know some things. For example, in 2002, Newmerical entered into an agreement with a California-based company called Ice Management Systems (IMS) to collaborate on adapting its “Electroexpulsive Separation System” to UAV applications. According to NASA, this system has become an “ideal solution to the UAV icing dilemma,” and its buyers include General Atomics, the manufacturer of every attack drone in the current U.S. military arsenal.

Predator drone firing missile

A Predator drone firing a missile.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States has greatly escalated its “covert” drone war in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, resulting in the expansion of the country’s UAV fleet and an ever greater demand for UAVs and the relevant technological advancements. Drone-related research taking place at universities cannot be considered in isolation from the real-world application of that research, which, in this case, is deadly. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that, from 2004 to 2013, between 2,535 and 3,576 people were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan alone, including between 411 and 884 civilians, and between 168 and 197 children. Right now, the American drone war has no end in sight.

Fighter Jets

Dr. Habashi, through Newmerical Technologies, sold FENSAP-ICE to Lockheed Martin in the early 2000s for use in the development of the F-35 fighter jet. A product of the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter program, the F-35 is a “next-generation” fighter jet, expected to provide the majority of the United States Air Force’s lethal airpower in the coming decades. The U.S. intends to buy 2,433 of the aircraft, and other buyers include Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel.

These known applications of FENSAP-ICE are illuminating with respect to the purposes of the CFD lab’s research. The lab has been defended on the basis that its work could just as easily assist civilian aircraft development, but the reality is that there is little demand for this kind of technology coming from, for example, the civilian airline transit industry. That’s because large commercial jets, unlike drones, are not in danger of crashing due to inadequate anti-icing technology. FENSAP-ICE is most useful specifically in those development settings where there is currently a demand being issued for technological advances on this front – where the interplay of factors like aerodynamics and ice accretion must routinely be simulated for novel aircraft designs. These settings are nearly exclusively military in nature.

The fact that the research done at the CFD lab is used by the military cannot be viewed as a simple coincidence. If the armed forces of various countries weren’t demanding a very specific kind of technological development, the lab would have little to no reason to exist.

CFD/Newmerical U.S. Collaboration

Newmerical Technologies, the company founded by Dr. Wagdi Habashi, the head of McGill’s Computational Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, appears to be concentrating more and more on military-related contracts. Newmerical’s website advertises a combined sales and engineering position at the company’s future office in Daytona Beach, Florida. Crucially, the advertisement stipulates that all candidates must be American citizens “in order to apply for a security clearance for ITAR-restricted work.” The acronym ITAR stands for “International Traffic in Arms Regulations”, a subchapter of the United States Code’s Foreign Relations section, which regulates the import and export of military technology.

Newmerical’s choice of location for its American branch office is also revealing. Daytona Beach is home to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a leader in aerospace engineering and a site where United States Air Force pilots get trained. Dr. Habashi – who, again, is head of both the CFD lab and Newmerical Techologies – has recently developed links with this private American university. In February 2013, Habashi and Stephen Yue, the director of McGill’s Institute for Aerospace Engineering, attended an event at Embry-Riddle marking the donation of two jet engines to the school’s Gas Turbine Laboratory by engineering company Pratt & Whitney, of which Habashi is a research fellow. In June 2013, Habashi presented a paper on synthetic jet actuators at the 21st AIAA Computational Fluid Dynamics Conference in San Diego, California; the paper was co-written with Dr. Vladimir V. Golubev, a professor at Embry-Riddle, and Nikisha Nagappan, a former Embry-Riddle graduate assistant who has since become an engineer for GE Global Research.3

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The collaboration with Embry-Riddle, and in particular with Dr. Golubev, underscores the military orientation of work being done on McGill’s campus. Golubev’s research is partially funded by the United States Air Force’s Research Laboratory and Office of Scientific Research, and his research presently focuses on using micro-air vehicles (i.e. small-sized drones) in “gusty urban environments.” Thus far, the military use of smaller drones has been restricted to surveillance, but there are plans for such aircraft to eventually serve as kamikaze-style attack drones.4 In February 2013, Golubev was invited to McGill to present some of his ongoing research, including research on drones, as part of the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Colloquium Seminar Series. In January 2014, Golubev and colleagues of his from Embry-Riddle presented a paper at the 52nd Aerospace Sciences meeting which specifically addresses how synthetic jet actuators – the technology being developed in collaboration with McGill researchers – can be applied to micro-air vehicles, specifically in order to stabilize them from gusts unique to “urban canyon” environments while tracking “mobile and elusive targets.”5

As previous research by Demilitarize McGill has shown, military research continues relatively unhindered on McGill’s campus. The opening of a Newmerical office in Daytona Beach and collaboration with Embry-Riddle indicate that McGill research is directly contributing to the development of U.S. military aircraft.

 Research Cited

1. Habashi, Wagdi G. “Recent Advances in CFD for In-Flight Icing Simulation”, 2009.

2. Tran, Pascal et al. “FENSAP-ICE Applications to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”, 2004.

3. Nagappan Nikisha, V. Golubev Vladimir, and Habashi Wagdi. “Parametric Analysis of Icing Control Using Synthetic Jet Actuators”, in 21st Aiaa Computational Fluid Dynamics Conference, Fluid Dynamics and Co-Located Conferences (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2013).

4. Medea Benjamin. Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, updated edition. ed. London/New York: Verso, 37.

5. Bhatt Shibani, V. Golubev Vladimir, and Tang Yan, “Design, Modeling and Testing of Synthetic Jet Actuators for Mav Flight Control”, in 52nd Aerospace Sciences Meeting, Aiaa Scitech (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2014).

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