Creative Engineering at SUTD

James Johnson Innovation

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Nearly five months into our year-long journey around the globe and we were preparing to once again meet with those pioneering new ways to explore space. After witnessing the inspiring innovation of Gilmour Space Technologies on Australia’s Gold Coast, we thought a follow-up visit with the company’s founder and CEO, Adam Gilmour, might be in order. That next visit would take us to the country of Singapore; home to Adam and one of the collaborative partnerships that is keeping Gilmour Space Technologies on the cutting edge of creativity and innovation. Through the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Gilmour Space Technologies is fueling creative engineering in everything from advanced rocket propulsion to introducing a new way to commute around the city. Such diverse projects are bringing students and real-world engineering challenges together. As creative ideas and innovative solutions merge, SUTD and Gilmour Space Technologies are creating a fertile environment for growing the next generation of engineers while advancing space exploration.

SUTD Campus

The SUTD campus is a relatively new campus, founded in 2012.

Grounds for Innovation – SUTD

Our visit to the Singapore University of Technology and Design campus began by walking up to a new, modern-looking building. Kabin Calan, who we met during our visit to Gilmour Space Technologies in Australia, greeted us with a smile and outstretched hand, “Welcome to SUTD!” The surrounding campus was his academic home before he began working for Gilmour Space Technologies full-time. Founded in 2012 in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), SUTD is a relatively new school with its most recent buildings only being completed a couple of years ago. Before our meeting with Adam and seeing the latest innovations coming from Gilmour Space Technologies, Kabin showed us around the campus and introduced us to why the school is an oasis of knowledge and creativity.

SUTD Library

SUTD changed the status quo for a library – books have been replaced with electronic media and material samples that can be studied for design & engineering.

New stands with old at SUTD. Smooth curves and futuristic lines make up the campus’ new buildings while delicate and ornate wooden buildings punctuate the green space. “These older buildings were donated by the movie star Jackie Chan,” Kabin explains as we inspect the detailed carvings that adorn the rooflines. But as Kabin leads us inside one of SUTD’s newest buildings, we see a contrast to the ancient Chinese architecture. Bright lights illuminate a collection of 3-D printers, CNC machines, and brightly colored collaboration spaces. “SUTD has one of the highest ratios of 3-D printers to students of any university,” Kabin explains, “It allows us to rapidly prototype ideas no matter where we happen to be.” The injection of accessible technology with the nod to ancient culture truly creates a fertile ground for innovative thinking. As a technology and design campus we see the forthcoming innovation in things like the 3-D printed class ring which double as access tokens. Various inventions and prototypes can be found in display cabinets or being tested in working classrooms. And that’s when we made our way to the lab space used by Gilmour Space Technologies.

  • SUTD Collaboration Space

    One of SUTD’s several open collaboration spaces.

  • SUTD Class Ring

    SUTD provides 3-D printed smart rings for lab access [Credit: SUTD].

Printing Rocket Engines

Adam Gilmour greeted us with the same energetic smile we remembered at the Pimpama, Australia strawberry farm that is home to the Gilmour Spaceflight Academy. “So you saw the rocket motor testing Down Under, but here is where we’re making the fuel for the motors.” Adam leads us past rooms filled with CNC machines and more 3-D printers to a small lab area that holds what looks like a large stainless steel bucket. Affixed with the Gilmour Space Technologies logo, the ‘bucket’ is attached to a 3-D printer head hovering over a large stainless steel plate. This is no typical 3-D printer, however. “We’re literally printing our rocket motors right here,” Adam points out, “and because the fuel is completely inert, we can then ship it anywhere.” That fuel is a special mix of carbon fiber and wax. Yes, a wax rocket motor. Ever hear the expression, ‘burning a candle at both ends’? Well, Gilmour Space Technology has pioneered a way to essentially burn a candle at one end…but with nearly 20,000 pounds of force.

  • 3-D Printing Rocket Motors

    The 3-D printer used by Gilmour Space Technologies for printing rocket motors.

  • Gilmour Space Technologies Team

    Gilmour Space Technologies CEO Adam Gilmour with team members Dinesh Baluraj (left) and Kabin Calan (right).

So how does a wax rocket motor work? Well first one must understand a little rocket science. In short, rockets burn a fuel with an oxidizer and send the resulting exhaust out a nozzle at high speed. For some rockets, the fuel and oxidizer are mixed together into solid cores that are ignited to send the payload upwards. This is how most all model rockets and the white boosters that used to be strapped to the side of the space shuttle work. They provide immense thrust in a very simple fashion, but lack the ability to change their power in-flight.

Atlantis Lift Off

The Orbiter Atlantis lifts off with over 5 Million pounds of combined thrust provided by the solid rocket boosters strapped to its side [Credit: NASA].

Liquid rockets use separate tanks of fuel (typically either liquid hydrogen or kerosene) and oxidizer (liquid oxygen) and mix them together to send the rocket forward. Most large rockets use liquid propellants mainly for the ability to throttle the engine. One main drawback is that these engines are a much more complex system.

SpaceX Falcon 9

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket uses liquid oxygen and kerosene for its first stage rocket motors [Credit: SpaceX].

This is where Gilmour’s wax rocket motor comes in. It fits in a relatively new class of rocket motors – the hybrid. These motors use a solid fuel with a liquid oxidizer in an effort to get the best of both types of rockets. The motor being developed at SUTD for Gilmour Space Technologies burns a secret mix of wax and carbon fiber with a nitrous oxide oxidizer. Yes…at the most basic level, Gilmour Space Technologies will send their rockets to space using essentially candles and laughing gas. At SUTD, they’re continuing to innovate the 3-D printing process of their rocket motors while testing them in Australia. Over time, Adam expects they’ll be able to manufacture the 3-D printed rocket motors in sections that are 1 meter in diameter by 4 meters tall and achieve a staggering 120,000 pounds of thrust. Depending on the size of a rocket’s payload, several of these motors could be used together to launch small and medium class payloads into orbit around Earth. A creative solution that will surely advance spaceflight!

Advancing Drone Design

Not more than five steps away from the rocket motor 3-D printer, Gilmour Space Technologies is innovating exploration a little closer to Earth. Adam, Kabin, and their colleague Dinesh Baluraj show us a collection of their drone prototypes. “We’ve done about 50 flights over 9 drones,” Adam explains, “all while learning about vehicle performance.” Gilmour’s goal is to develop a drone capable of lifting and transporting a 120 kilogram (264 pound) payload while being able to transition between vertical and horizontal flight. Such a drone would be capable of evacuating a wounded soldier from a battlefield or a stranded citizen from a flood area. With that goal in mind, Gilmour Space Technologies is leveraging its partnership with SUTD to perfect their approaches to design, build, and test.

Gilmour Space Technologies Drone

One of the prototype drones used for testing by Gilmour Space Technologies.

“We’ve had some spectacular failures, but we’re learning from our fast-paced prototyping,” Adam shared. “We’ve studied the relationship of the size of our quadcopter blades to the transition from vertical to horizontal flight. We’ve also taken a close look at how altitude loss during that transition can be minimized.” Every flight Gilmour Space Technologies conducts is fully autonomous, meaning the drone takes off, flies a programmed route, and lands on its own. As they continue to test their advances in drone technology, Adam hopes to also apply the rapid design, build, and test approach to their rockets.

SUTD Drone

Adam Gilmour (left) and Dinesh Baluraj (right) show off one of Gilmour Space Technologies’ drones being constructed at SUTD.

Electric Scooters and Beyond

This approach is something Gilmour Space Technologies is trying to instill within the future generation of designers and engineers at SUTD. In addition to implementing rapid, innovative design in rockets and drones, Adam mentors student projects that are at the forefront of creativity and design. Adam asked if we wanted to see the latest project and pulled out a neat, compact package of wheels, wires, and metal. In just a few minutes the package transformed into a small scooter. “Our design goal was to develop an electric scooter that could fold up and fit in a child’s backpack.” Adam’s smile clearly reflected his pride in the SUTD team’s work.

  • Electric Scooter

    Adam Gilmour talks technical details of the electric scooter with James.

  • Foldable Electric Scooter

    Adam holds the prototype scooter designed at SUTD in its compact configuration.

This folding scooter could transform how people commute about a city. While electric and folding scooters are not new, Gilmour Space Technologies and SUTD creatively merged the two concepts. The prototype Adam unveiled to us can travel about 5 miles at a speed of 7 miles per hour…all on a single battery charge. Perhaps one day this kind of creative combination will merge with spaceflight and we’ll see scooters and other ways of transporting astronauts on the Moon and Mars.

Electric Scooter

Adam Gilmour shows off the electric scooter built by a SUTD student team he helped mentor.

Following our visit with Adam and Kabin, we continued to explore the city of Singapore for a few days. Between enjoying street food and diverse architecture, we spotted a particular sign that caught our attention. The sign indicated that Singapore is listed as a UNESCO Creative City for Design. While the dazzling skyscrapers and city’s futuristic architecture are likely contributors to such recognition, we expect the greatest creative contribution is yet to come. Through the collaboration of Gilmour Space Technologies and SUTD, young engineers are working a diverse collection of challenges. Challenges that when overcome, will improve life here on Earth while enabling us to explore beyond our home planet.

Singapore at Night

Singapore at night – one of UNESCO’s Creative Cities for Design.

About the Author

James Johnson


James is an innovation storyteller and photographer for Simple Discoveries. He's previously served in NASA’s Mission Control for 18 Space Shuttle missions and is passionate about cultivating innovation through personal exploration and discovery.

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