The Brave New World of Parachute R&D—How Computer-Aided Design Drives Innovation

Have you ever thought about how parachute designers take an interesting idea and turn it into a real-live piece of nylon? As you might imagine, the story of a canopy is never as simple as scratching down some math and heading over to a cutting table. Since the first parachute designer put his idea to paper, the process has been as much about the people manning the pencils as it has been about the parachute that’s born of the process. And in the last scant handful of years, the story has taken on another plotline entirely.

Nowadays, parachute design is a pas de deux between man and machine. The tools that have recently emerged on the scene are allowing designers far freer rein than they’ve ever enjoyed before. Consequently, machine design is profoundly changing the way we fly.

While two-dimensional computer-assisted design was revolutionary compared to the cardboard patterns used before that, it was around six years ago—give or take—that computer-assisted design really started to change the canopy research-and-development game. At its root, the change was a straightforward one: The process of canopy design switched from 2D, panel-by-panel, pencils-and-protractors engineering to a workflow that lives pretty much entirely within 3D software. The story of how this all transpired is a very interesting one indeed—and has as much to do with chance meetings and passionate people as it does with the technology that poured rocket fuel in the tank.

Catalyst for a New Way

Julien Peelman—engineer, chief designer and R&D guru at NZ Aerosports—has never actually had to design a canopy using the 2D method. That’s in great part because it was Peelman who brought the new-school method to the table. When he walked into NZ Aerosports as a new university grad, parachute design changed forever. Today, many in the industry recognize Peelman as one of the key catalysts for the new way of doing things.

After hearing his story, it feels like Peelman was pretty much born to manipulate fabric in a performance context. As a kid on the French Mediterranean coast, he did “a lot of sailing on all different types of boats,” he recalled. After high school, he moved to Toulouse to start studying aeronautical engineering, which ironically cut him off from the sailing world.

Luckily, he’d chosen an enviable school: Ensica, now rebranded as the ISAE (Institute of Space and Aeronautical Engineering). The university openly offered to pay for its students to pursue an air sport—skydiving, paragliding, gliding or piloting fixed-wing aircraft—and Peelman quite literally jumped at the chance. He chose skydiving. He never looked back.

Appetite whetted by those early flights, Peelman focused his studies on aerodynamics. When he went to New Zealand for an internship in the sailing industry, he stumbled into a working relationship that’s now air sports history.

“I worked in New Zealand for six months, and I didn’t want to leave,” Peelman said, grinning. “As it happens, a guy who worked at a sailing company I visited for an interview told me that there was parachute manufacturing in Auckland, which I didn’t know before. I called them up and asked to visit the factory. I wasn’t originally thinking about getting a job at this point, but I showed up and had a few beers with [NZ Aerosports founder Paul “Jyro” Martyn]. We talked a few hours about what I was doing with CFD [computational fluid dynamics] design, and then I left. Once I was in the street, I stopped dead in my tracks, turned around, went back in and asked for a job.”

Peelman had to go back to France to graduate. A month later, he came back to join the staff. He spent the next six years traveling between France and New Zealand; two years ago, he moved back to France. The new grad and the legendary innovator had a well-established process: Martyn would pop up with an idea of what he wanted to see next, then Peelman would dive into the software and make that concept a working reality. Then a test jumper would jump the canopy. Martyn would review the footage with his preternaturally discerning eye for detail, then (quite) thoroughly debrief it. Those notes would go back to Peelman for him to make his revisions. Round and round the design would go, spinning tighter and tighter circles around the goal until a canopy emerged that matched up in terms of usability and format.

This process worked, and it worked brilliantly. Since Peelman started at the company, NZ Aerosports has grown by a factor of five.

A Design Revolution

NZ Aerosports was the first company in the skydiving industry to use the CFD software that metamorphosed the process, but the tech wasn’t new, per se. The paragliding industry had been using it for years. However, Peelman and Martyn’s introduction of this 3D design process was revolutionary for skydiving.

You can think of it this way: Designing a canopy the old way was like baking a layer cake. You had to know exactly what the eventual cake was going to look like from the get-go, because you had to bake all the layers separately in a way that matched up perfectly (and you’d still probably have to spread on the frosting pretty thick to make it look right). Designing a canopy now, by comparison, is like making a sandcastle. You can have a general picture in your head of the sandcastle and can simply mold it to fit what you want.

“When you design a canopy [using 2D methods],” Peelman explained, “you have to think about the shape that you want for the overall canopy first, then design each individual panel to fit the overall shape. That’s why, for a very long time, canopies pretty much all looked the same.”

Case in point: If a designer wanted a canopy to be cross-braced, he had to make sure each brace would fit perfectly right between the two ribs, which isn’t impossible to do by hand … but it’s close. Peelman provided this example: “Let’s say, for example, that I design two ribs in the 3D space. Instead of working it all out by hand, I can ask the software to create a cross brace between the two ribs. The software then simply generates the cross brace between this point and that point, and I don’t have to think about the distance between them.” That boost lets Peelman focus much more on the creative, innovative effort and much less on the nuts and bolts.

“You don’t have to redesign everything every time you want to make a change,” Peelman said. “You just focus on creating a shape, and the software computes the rest. We do small modifications outside the software—and those are important—but that’s it.”

It’s not all roostertails and swoop-and-chugs, of course. Problems do come up—especially in the prototyping process, when a canopy design goes from 3D idea to 2D fabric. If you think about what it takes to flatten out a ball (for instance, to turn a globe into a world map that preserves the accuracy of the original), you can see the problem.

A canopy is a very curvaceous object, indeed.

“On the top surface,” Peelman explained, “we have curves in literally all possible directions.”

Up to the Task

Despite the challenges, Peelman, Martyn and the rest of the NZ Aerosports team proved themselves more than up to the task. To date, NZ Aerosports has turned out approximately 138 prototypes and released six canopies using the 3D process.

“The combination of Julien and Jyro and the software really created something that was special,” explained Shannon Seyb, “director of awesomeness” at NZ Aerosports. “And we jumped on it, because, as a company, we weren’t scared to push the limits and do something different from what everyone had been doing for years and years. I think that, because we were so small, we didn’t have a lot of the limitations pressed on us. We weren’t afraid to experiment, to do something crazy.”

Martyn, NZ Aerosports’ founding soul and mad savant, passed away in March of this year. His passing left an aching void, as it was his one-in-a-billion blend of creativity, analytical skill and vision that had driven the company for so many years.

“On a day-to-day basis, Jyro wasn’t really involved in running the company anymore, but he was the heart for sure,” Peelman explained. “When he died, we suddenly had to think about the future for ourselves and try to define the goals and vision.” It was a tall order—but Martyn had guided them to a very good place from which to undertake it.

Another Upstart

NZ Aerosports may have started the fire, but it’s another upstart that’s giddily hucking gasoline onto the flames—and it started, just like NZ Aerosports’ revolution, with a chance meeting that was years in the making.

This is the story of Fluid Wings. It started in 1997, when Scott Roberts made good on a dare: a tandem skydive. Predictably, he walked right back in from the landing to sign up for a first-jump course. Roberts started skydiving competitively while he was completing his master’s thesis in nonlinear finite element analysis. (Yeah. Nonlinear finite element analysis.)

“After grad school,” Roberts said, grinning, “I decided to move someplace I could jump year-round and see how good I could get.” His first canopy piloting competition, in 2001, went well enough for him to snag an invitation to some of the pro swooping tours. In 2003, he missed getting on the U.S. Team by one spot (strong work for a brand-new competitor). From 2004 to 2010, he competed at the national level, placing in the single digits and working for parachute manufacturer Performance Designs as a competition team member and demo pilot.

One of those demo gigs was special: the Red Bull Blade Raid—billed as “skydiving meets slalom skiing”—which included skydivers and paragliding pilots. The event showed him that he had a lot to learn from paragliding, so any time he had a break in his swooping schedule, Roberts beelined back to Utah to learn to fly paragliders and speed wings. He convinced paragliding swami (and fellow gearhead) Kevin Hintze to be his instructor. The two became fast friends.

“It was a busy time,” Roberts said. “I was working a lot with Performance Designs at the time and doing a lot of road events, interfacing with people about the gear—germinating some really interesting ideas.” He then winced and said, “Then I got hurt.”

Making Use of Down Time

Ironically, Roberts’ injury had nothing to do with the high-stakes, high-performance skydiving that formed the backbone of his professional life. He was having a low-key day, actually—just soaring a paraglider over some dunes in Florida with friends. Without warning, a low-flying Blackhawk helicopter came cranking over and waked them. “It picked us up 60 feet, wadded us up and chucked us back down again,” he explained. Roberts was in bed for four months. It wrecked his leg, his back and his plans.

However, he’s not the kind of guy to take anything lying down, even if he has to lie down. He passed the (significant) recovery time in taking the Massachusetts Institute of Technology course in aerodynamics and honing his already exceptional 3D design skills. The goal: to properly develop the ideas he’d been cooking. He and Hintze set to work (from their respective home bases in Florida and Utah) creating air sports Franken-technology: crossover paragliding/skydiving flying machines. This is stuff that no one had tried before … and had never been possible before the 3D-software revolution.

To design Fluid’s wings, Roberts uses very similar tools as he used to knock out his master’s thesis … but there are differences. Mostly, those differences have to do with timeline compression: The same data that took the university supercomputer an entire night to process 15 years ago takes his laptop a few minutes. By the time Roberts healed, they had some pretty crazy prototypes to jump.

The pair started testing their skydiving designs at north Florida’s Skydive Palatka and set up a little “Steve Jobs garage” to do the builds. “It was Project Mayhem,” Scott said, laughing. “Every few months, I’d fly over to Utah to visit Kevin for a week. We'd sew like madmen and try some crazy sh*t. … We never walked to the plane with fewer than three parachutes.”

Over the course of two years, Fluid’s original wing went through thousands of iterations. A couple dozen prototypes took to the sky, each with elemental changes to the planform, the profile, the trim and the construction. There were a lot of hits and a lot of misses, but at the end of the day, even counting the grass stains and face palms, the result was an unequivocal success as far as R&D was concerned. Now, with the Airwolf competition canopy, Fluid Wings is on its eighth release and has gathered an “island of misfit toys” in its DeLand production facility.

From the way Roberts describes the Fluid Wings modus operandi, you can get a sense of how computer data drives design decisions and how agile the software allows the process to be. “We use NASA code for a lot of our analysis,” Scott said, grinning. “You can think of it as trickle-down science.” And that, of course, is a totally backward approach from the planform-first method that 2D design requires. Roberts continued, “The software lets us focus very specifically on the one question we’re at all interested in: How does it fly?

“Who cares how it looks? Most of the time, the elements that are visibly noticeable in a wing are the elements that matter the least. The things that matter the most are tiny little things. For instance, we did a whole revision on a wing that we’re working on, and I can guarantee if I cut the two airfoils out of paper and set the old version and the new version next to each other, you couldn’t tell the difference. But they have significantly different flight characteristics; you could sure as hell tell they’re different if you flew them.

“All these little details are so interrelated that it’s impossible and irresponsible to pluck one out of the sky for, like, marketing. You can’t just say, ‘For this trick we’re going to do a curved leading edge because that’s hot right now,’ and expect it to somehow work. You have to have a holistic approach. That’s why a copy doesn’t ever turn out right, I think, and that’s also why we start from scratch every time,” Roberts explained.

Designing to planform is obviously tempting from the marketing perspective. Potential customers, after all, can see planform. Designers change things that are noticeable to the untrained eye so that new releases are obviously different. When you build two functionally divergent parachutes that happen to look almost identical to the untrained eye, you’re taking a risk. That is, until you start to train the market to work by feel. Thankfully, 3D-design technology has started to make that easier.

Into the Real World

However, the design of a new parachute has to come out of a computer and into the real world, and that ain’t easy. That part of the process, in fact, remains one heck of a bugaboo. As a rule, Roberts puts the first jump on every skydiving canopy that Fluid Wings produces.

“You can get close in the computer,” Roberts says, “but then you’ve got to physically build it and then physically test it, then revise your model and do it all again. You get closer each time. In the past, without the ability to do that analysis, it took ages to take each consecutive step forward. Now, it’s just days.”

“The spread on the scariness of the test jumps is getting a lot narrower now,” he said, laughing, “because we’re able to run computer models for the wild-ass guesses that you have to do early on in the design process to govern stability and suchlike.” These computer models are so precise that one of Fluid Wings’ releases—the Freya—actually remained unchanged from its first rough draft.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Roberts said. “It was like coming up with a concept car and that car going straight to production with zero changes. It felt crazy. We really wanted to make a nudge somewhere, but every revision we made set us back. Ironically, the process actually took longer because there were no changes. It was a weird, beautiful situation all around.”

For now, Fluid Wings’ focus is mainly on super-high-performance swooping machines. There’s the Tesla, for instance: Without computer modeling, its curved leading edge, non-cross-braced, no-stabilizers design would never have seen daylight. If there’s a theme overarching this story, that’s it: Most of the recent innovations in parachute design would not have been realistically possible without the technology that now underlies the industry.

“We are about to start coloring outside the lines in earnest,” Roberts revealed. “Right now, we’re earning people’s trust; you can’t just come out of left field with crazy ideas if you don’t take the time to educate people, to teach people about what you’re doing. We are laying the groundwork to bring the people along with us and to do the things we want to do, because we have so much more room to create now that the technology supports it.”

“We’re finally getting there,” Roberts said and smiled. “What happens next is going to blow your mind.”

Martyn, we’re certain, would raise a Heineken to that.

About the Author
Annette O'Neil, D-33263, is a multidisciplinary air sports athlete: skydiver, BASE jumper, paraglider and speed-wing pilot. Location-independent, she travels the world full-time as a freelance writer and producer. In her spare time, she loves flopping around on a yoga mat and carpetbombing Facebook from Instagram.

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