Examining the ‘fail-safe’ engineering behind air travel

11 Nov 2021

Image: Dr Walter Stanley

At FameLab, Dr Walter Stanley explained the philosophy of ‘failing safely’ that makes air travel so much safer than travelling in a car.

Dr Walter Stanley is a senior lecturer in mechanical and aeronautical engineering at University of Limerick. He is also a researcher at the university’s Bernal Institute, where materials science and engineering are the focus.

Stanley has more than 25 years’ experience in the manufacture and mechanical testing of composite materials and this is where his research interests lie. Among other things, he has investigated aerospace structures, and the recycling of the common plastic PET into structural fibres and composites.

In all, Stanley has secured more than €3m in research funding and has been the principal investigator on several projects related to composite materials. But all this success doesn’t make an entry into FameLab, the science communication competition, any less daunting.

Stanley tackled two distinct topics, summing them up in just three minutes, for the regional and national legs of the contest. After winning the Irish final, PhD student Tammy Strickland will represent Ireland in the international semi-finals this week.

‘Aircraft design still fascinates me as I sit as a simple passenger on a commercial flight’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I was fascinated with the rapidly developing research area of composite materials and their manufacture in the aeronautical industry. I first encountered these when I worked at Dornier Luftfahrt in Germany in the early ’90s.

What prompted you to compete in FameLab?

I really don’t know why, but I had hoped to spread the message of recycling polymers and engineering plastics, which has been my passion for the last five years or so. I really wanted to disseminate what I had researched and developed to a broader audience so it might help in a small way in our climate change and environmental battles.

You switched topic for the final. How would you sum up your second FameLab presentation?

A brief history of aircraft design and design philosophies that, unfortunately, were learned in the most difficult manner possible, ie after the tragic loss of life through a catastrophic fatal accident.

I discussed how engineers and designers came to understand new failure processes associated with new developments and capabilities of new aircraft, and how careful we should be before we blindly accept potentially dangerous advances.

Why did you choose these topics for your FameLab presentations?

The topic for the regional final was about my research over the last five years on recycling of PET bottles into a structural composite, for higher value-added return for composite recyclers and provide a better incentive for increased levels of recycling.

I had to change topic for the national final, which was a bit of a disappointment and a daunting task. I settled on some aspects of aircraft design, which I have studied and taught for a long time, and still fascinates me as I sit as a simple passenger on a commercial flight.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in science communication?

The biggest challenge was compressing all I wanted to say into three short minutes. Not easy! It forced me to talk too quickly and led me to stumble at times as so much wanted to come out but hit a hurdle at my larynx.

What common misconceptions about science would you like to correct?

Many people think they will not understand it or will use equations they have detested since school. But if you try to engage them in everyday curiosities, they can become enraptured.

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