Aerospace Design Laboratory workshop showcases groundbreaking new code

In the world of aerospace engineering, the problems are hard, but their solutions are often harder. In this field of science, understanding the governing equations of flow are key to finding such solutions, but this used to require an expensive piece of software – often $50,000 per license. Thanks to a group of Stanford researchers, that will now change.

On Jan. 15 in the William H. Durand Building, the Aerospace Design Laboratory (ADL) held a workshop to release its new project; a free, open-source program for designing computational fluid dynamics (CFD) codes used in aerospace engineering.

The team officially unveiled the open-source CFD code, known as Stanford University Unstructured (SU2), during the workshop. The new software aims to compute accurate numerical portraits of the flow over an airfoil or other surface.

In June 2011, the ADL team began working towards a first version of SU2. Francisco Palacios, who provided a skeleton of the code at the outset, laid out the vision for the code’s structure.

“We literally started from scratch,” he said. “This was the type of job that would take 10 people working full-time for six months to get a basic code up and running.”

The ADL team decided to write the program in C++ to exploit its objected-oriented properties.

“Basically, we didn’t want to have to rewrite elements of the code that were already implemented,” ADL member Sean Copeland ’10 M.S., ’13 Ph.D. said. The team also added a Python interface in order to “cool the code,” in Palacios’ words, and because Python is used extensively in the scientific community.

During the event, three problem solving workshops were held to introduce attendees to the code, and members of the Aeronautics and Astronautics lab, including Francisco Palacios, research associate, and Juan Alonso, associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and founder of the group, spoke about the program.

After six months of building and testing the code, the first version of SU2 was released in January 2012, and has since undergone two major upgrades, with planned stable releases every six months for the foreseeable future.

The ADL team has made a significant effort to grow the SU2 community through outreach efforts that include Facebook, Twitter and an online forum. Leading researchers from around the world have also reached out to the ADL team about joining a SU2 core development team.

“Like with our Ph.D. students, developers from a variety of backgrounds will be able to create extensions to the code that fit their particular interests,” Palacios said.

SU2 has already been downloaded more than 3,000 times in 114 different countries, and is currently being used in the design of a supersonic passenger jet, which promises three-hour flights across the United States with the same engine efficiency as today’s standard commercial transports.

The event attracted a continuum of companies and individuals, some of whom have no direct connection to fluid dynamics, in addition to leading academic institutions such as MIT, NASA, medical device makers and large aerospace and defense companies.

Although the response has been positive to the ADL’s latest batch of upgrades, Copeland concedes that the job is far from over.

“We aim to pursue the state of the art, and until that has been done, our job won’t be completed,” Copeland said.

 The Stanford Aerospace Design Lab is led by associate professor Juan J. Alonso. Assistant professor (consulting) Karthik Duraisamy, research associate Michael Colonno and doctoral candidates Aniket Aranake, Alejandro Campos, Sean Copeland, Thomas Economon, Amrita Lonkar, Trent Lukaczyk, Thomas Taylor have had fundamental roll in the development of SU2.

About Kyle Gschwend