Video: The propulsion icing wind tunnel has been used to test vegetation of a Soprema system.

Olympic athletes use them. So does the Canadian Air Force.

The National Research Council’s six wind tunnels in Ottawa have gotten quite a workout over the years, from testing turbulence for trucks going on Canadian highways to testing icing conditions of aircraft components and parachutes on rovers heading to Mars.

But many people don’t realize that the research taking place in these tunnels results in changes to equipment that improves the safety for all and greatly affects daily life.

“There's been some really interesting work done in these wind tunnels,” says Marco Colagrande, a facilities manager of the aerodynamics laboratory at the National Research Council, adding that he sees products undergoing research a year or two before they go public.

The tunnels range in size, from the 0.57-metre by 0.57-metre altitude icing wind tunnel, which simulates altitude, to the nine-metre by nine-metre subsonic tunnel, which can test wind speeds on actual cars and trucks.

Colagrande says that the 1.5-metre-square trisonic wind tunnel is the only one in Canada that can create supersonic flow conditions, with winds reaching speeds up to Mach 4, or four times the speed of sound. He says there’s been testing in the past to simulate the release of fuel tanks, bombs and missiles from planes “to make sure that whatever they're releasing from the aircraft doesn't actually fly up and hit the aircraft.”

This tunnel has also helped with research for a parachute of a rover travelling to Mars.

“Given the type of atmosphere that's on Mars, the parachute actually has to deploy at supersonic speeds, which is very unusual. We've done a supersonic deployment of a scale model of the parachute.”

Another tunnel, the two-metre by three-metre low-speed subsonic wind tunnel, has been used for a variety of different testing, including tests on models of trucks, cars and aircraft to research that supports Canadian athletes.

“This was the main tunnel that supported the Own the Podium Initiative for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver,” Colagrande says. “We had a number of the winter athletes come here and we were able to work with them and help them develop different techniques on how to improve their aerodynamic efficiency so that they could ski faster or skate faster."

He says the bobsled and the skeleton crews also used this tunnel.

“We're not going to take credit for all the golds that Canada won, but we like to think that we had our part to play in it.”

Learn about how the world's first hexagonal wind tunnel recreates tornadoes.