Composites touch all our lives, from the young boy swinging a baseball bat in the local park to the businesswomen driving over a bridge each day to work. But long before applications hit the marketplace, researchers in university laboratories develop innovations that will change our world. The ingenuity and dedication of researchers studying composites have shaped industries — transportation, aerospace, automotive, wind, infrastructure, marine and more.

Worldwide university research and development is paramount to the future of composites. Composites Manufacturing scanned the globe to find breakthrough projects from the fundamental materials science level to commercialization. We present six projects over the coming weeks conducted on three continents that could one day affect billions of people.

Project: Aircraft for cryospheric remote sensing

School: University of Kansas

Location: Lawrence, Kan.

Director: R.D. Hale

The earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.4 F over the past century and is expected to increase another 2 to 11.5 F over the next 100 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That may not sound like a lot, but subtle changes in the average temperature translate into potentially dangerous shifts in climate that can ultimately affect our economy, health and communities.

Aerospace engineers at the University of Kansas are at the forefront of global climate change research, building portable composite aircraft to help collect data on polar ice sheets. They work alongside faculty and students from a variety of disciplines at the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS), established on campus in 2005 by the National Science Foundation. The mission of CReSIS is to develop new technologies and computer models to measure and predict the response of sea level change to the mass balance of ice sheets in polar regions.

“The leading science lacks data on the fundamental physics behind the motion of glacial ice,” says R.D. Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Kansas and associate director of technology for CReSIS. “We provide better data so scientists can come up with better predictive models for the rate at which things are changing.”

Hale and his students have built both unmanned and manned aircraft used for remote sensing surveys in isolated areas. The Meridian unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flew several missions in Antarctica and Greenland between 2009 and 2011. The 1,100-pound, 26-foot span aircraft is a rugged, modular plane with removable wings that can be assembled in a short amount of time on the field. Rigidity constraints for the wing-mounted sensors and takeoff weight versus range performance led to an aircraft of predominantly bonded carbon and epoxy composites.