In Pursuit of Safer Spaceflight
Conditions in space can be hostile. There’s orbiting satellite and rocket debris, radiation from the sun, solar flares and extremes in temperature – not to mention the unknowns of extraterrestrial travel. Is it any wonder astronauts go through such intensive mission training to prepare for any eventuality?
Safety, of course, is prioritized at every step, from pre-launch simulations to managing the effects of zero gravity on the human body, to the risk-filled return to Earth’s atmosphere.
Aerospace companies, and the manufacturers who support the industry, are searching for better ways to detect environmental changes inside and outside of the aircraft to mitigate the unexpected. At Validyne Engineering, “Our secret sauce is, we take electronics and improve the accuracy, improve the performance, and make it more rugged,” says Manish Desai, Engineering Manager. “We thrive on the challenge of, ‘how can we do this?’”
The company designs and manufactures pressure sensors and custom equipment that helps provide wider, varied and comprehensive data for safer flight operations. Among its many highlight projects, Validyne has been a key contributor to aerospace solutions since its inception in 1968, testing the prototype Airbus A380, radar systems for Lockheed Martin and drones for military operations.
The company is a reputed leader in variable reluctance technology – VRT. For the uninitiated, VRT uses a coil that is excited by AC voltage to create an electromagnetic field. When two of these halves are put together with a diaphragm, the deflection of the diaphragm provides a voltage corresponding to the pressure applied. Validyne’s full scope of data acquisition technology, pressure measurement and signal conditioning serves a diverse customer base that also includes automotive and engine manufacturers, oil and gas companies, medical research centers and university laboratories.
But aerospace is a big focus for growth and innovation – and it’s where a lot of the truly out-of-this-world stuff happens.
“One of the challenges in the industry is to be able to measure a very low differential pressure at a very high line pressure,” explains Sharon Hobba, Executive Vice President at Validyne. “That’s where our technology delivers.”
The tanks used to store the liquid oxygen and liquid nitrogen are highly pressurized, as are the fuel lines. During ground tests to simulate the function of the engine in space, numerous accurate measurements are required and closely analyzed. “To make these measurements, you need devices that can withstand the high pressures and extreme environmental conditions at the test sites, all while being able to measure the low differential pressures,” Hobba says.
These devices also need to be durable and repairable in the field, if a valve downstream or upstream of the transducer fails, she says.
To solve this challenge, Validyne recently unveiled its P370 pressure transmitter, designed specifically for the aerospace industry. The P370 has an increased accuracy over a wider temperature range and is able to withstand line pressures of 10,000 PSI while measuring differential pressures of 8 PSI. The small displacement and travel of the sensing diaphragms, plus the ability to close-couple the sensor to rapidly changing pressure sources, give this Validyne transducer a heightened response in air and an even faster response in liquids.
The sensing diaphragm is directly exposed to the pressure media – there are no fill-fluids or mechanical connections to slow down the response or affect performance in temperature. It’s designed to withstand intrusion from liquids and can be made with 410SST, 316, Inconel, and Hastelloy for resistance.
The P370 also has a sealed housing that protects the electronics from harsh environments. Since these units are not welded, if a problem arises, the customer can easily repair the damaged unit instead of dealing with the downtime and cost of replacing it with an entire new device.
Another selling point is the transducer can be configured to the customer’s own mounting hardware, which can translate to cost savings and speed of application.
“We really put our customers first and pride ourselves on customer support,” Hobba says. “We have an in-house machine shop and onsite team of engineers who are talking directly to our customers to meet almost any specification.” In fact, Validyne, ISO 9001:2015 and AS9100D certified and a Los Angeles Green Business award-winner, has developed more than 2,500 custom applications. This is a team that is highly experienced and passionate about the work.
“One of the most exciting parts of the job is working collaboratively with our customers,” Desai says. He comes from a computer science background so he’s right at home with the hours spent on the keyboard managing software development and 3-D modeling. “We figure out their problems, talk to our team here and see how we can solve them. We almost do that daily in a sense because we’re a very custom manufacturer.”
Another win for Validyne is its Bluetooth accessory for the line of pressure transducers and transmitters. The accessory enables remote zero and span calibration of the transducer via a mobile app. It also gives the user valuable information on the calibration, including calibration date, serial number, model number and full scale pressure. The result is reduced downtime and a boost in productivity.
A major point of differentiation for the company comes down to materials. Validyne uses materials that can be used in wide temperature ranges. That wide temperature range advantage, in a growing aerospace industry, is pushing the limits of pressure measurement. Validyne’s goal is to be ahead of the market in the development of robust pressure sensors capable of handling extreme temperatures and corrosive media.
The next cool technology to come? The team is developing a pressure sensor that can withstand operations near cryogenic environments – a harsh reality in space. Cryogenic temperatures range between minus 239 Fahrenheit and absolute zero – minus 460 Fahrenheit.
“We’re working to accurately measure pressures at near cryogenic temperatures – super cold,” Desai says. “We’re trying to figure out what are our parameters and constraints, and what we can measure at those really cold temperatures.” And pushing limits – and the envelope – is where Validyne excels.