aircraft design teams
Aircraft design seniors designed, built, and tested their proposed concepts and flew their aircrafts in and end-of-semester competition for the first time in department history this past spring.

For the first time in department history, aerospace engineering seniors had the unique opportunity to compete in a simulated real-world environment by developing unmanned aircraft system design plans and bringing them to life.

During the fall 2011 semester, ASE 361K (Aircraft Design I) students formed eight teams, each developing their own ideas for a winning design with the goal of participating in a competitive fly-off in their spring 2012 Aircraft Design II class (ASE 361L). Two of the proposed concepts, teams Underdog and GoldTech, were selected at the end of the fall semester and formed the basis for the spring semester team efforts to design, build, and test their proposed concepts and then fly them in the end-of-semester competition.  

In ASE 361K, students spent the first semester creating a conceptual design of an aircraft to meet mission requirements. This included learning the design process and applying it to the design of the mission as well as the unmanned air system (UAS). The UAS included two camera equipped air vehicles, a control station, and associated communications equipment. Air vehicles were selected from commercially available kits that the students were required to redesign to meet mission requirements. Students developed their own design tools that were used for air vehicle weight, performance and cost estimation, and preliminary re-sizing of the wing and tail surfaces. They also learned and applied the fundamentals of systems engineering to their designs.

The following spring, students took their conceptual designs from the previous semester and turned them into real-life systems. The process included redesign and rebuilding of the wing surfaces, detailed development of weight and balance statements, and propulsion and performance prediction. Students also learned about autopilot and camera control and avionics/communications system integration. Each step of the process involved testing and evaluation, including verifying air vehicle structural strength and flight test and evaluation of the completed aircraft.

On the evening of April 19, members of teams Underdog and GoldTech finally had the chance to show off the airplanes they had worked so hard to design and build over the last two semesters. In the early evening hours, with winds working in their favor, the well-crafted airplanes were successfully flown over Austin Radio Control Association Field, demonstrating the teamwork, technical skills, and problem solving abilities the seniors had developed over the course of the year.

Team GoldTech ultimately prevailed during the final fly-off after Team Underdog experienced an unrecoverable autopilot malfunction, which reflected in their lower scores.

The newly developed course requirement is intended to provide students with the opportunity to experience hands-on systems engineering design, where they face a host of real-world problems, including technical difficulties, interpersonal conflicts, scheduling, over/underestimates of workload, finding and correcting mistakes, and more.

Students also used what they learned in their aerospace engineering classes to develop a working knowledge of systems engineering, according to ASE Professor Wallace Fowler. 

“In systems engineering, things must work together in a harmonious manner to achieve an objective. Students had to design and build systems that synchronize the operations of electric motors, batteries, aerodynamics, cameras, transmitters, receivers, GPS units, autopilots, computers, etc., to locate and identify an object (like a crashed aircraft) on the ground, and then drop a “kit” (medical supplies, food, etc.) near the object. The ultimate goal of the assignment is the development of graduates who can work with complex interrelated systems,” Fowler said.

Professors Fowler and Mark at fly-off
Professors Wallace Fowler (left) and Hans Mark (middle) with aerospace engineering senior Jeremiah Bracy (BS ASE 2012) during the first aircraft design fly-off which was held April 19.

Development of the design course approach was led by Dr. Armand Chaput, Director of the Lockheed Martin sponsored UT Aircraft System Laboratory, in collaboration with Dr. Hans Mark. In 2008, Chaput joined the faculty full-time to teach the capstone aircraft design course. But after working in the industry for decades, he became aware that many aerospace engineers were entering the workforce with little knowledge of systems engineering and its practical application. Dr. Mark had similar observations from his years working in government, which included service with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and the Department of Defense. The collaboration also included a number of other professors, and resulted in expansion of the original one-semester conceptual design course to include a second semester with a focus on flying hardware and practical application of systems engineering. As a result of their determination, the two-semester sequence – ASE 361K and ASE 361L – was created, and is now a required part of the curriculum.

While the students were very dedicated to the project and often logged over 20 hours per week between building, lectures, team meetings, and testing, the hands-on project forced students to think out of the box in a way they had never done before.

“They’re meeting real-world problems and the reality of the frustration that engineers face when things don’t work,” graduate student and course co-developer Michael Szmuk said. “The nice thing about hands-on learning is that the students and professors can see first-hand if their answers really work. The same can’t be said for solving problems on paper. It was nice to see the transformation that these students underwent. As the designs of both teams matured, you could see how they began to realize that some of their original ideas wouldn't work or were too complicated. They then spent time finding better, simpler, and more robust solutions, and as a result came out as better engineers.”

Though rewarding, the design and building process came with its rough moments. Instead of preventing mistakes from happening, Chaput and his graduate students used them as opportunities for the students to learn.

"We certainly didn't encourage to students to make mistakes, but if they were dead set on pursuing a questionable approach, we let it happen because they’re going to learn more that way,” Chaput said. “When conducted in a controlled educational environment, real world lessons learned can be a powerful instructional technique.”

Though students were often frustrated and complaints resonated early on, by the end of the spring semester there was an attitude change. Most students voiced their gratefulness for this project that gave them a one of a kind experience and a leg up in their future workplaces.

“I learned how to work in an environment that more closely simulates the real world and industry environment,” senior Team Captain Kate Umlang said. “Unlike other classes, the students were given total responsibility to complete the mission, rather than just completing weekly assignments and taking exams. It also tested our ability to work under pressure and with coworkers. Both of these things are vital to learn as we prepare to enter the workforce.”

The project has been a collaborative effort of many individuals including former and current graduate students and a steering committee comprising a member of the Department of Defense, Nicholas Torelli, ASE/EM Professors Wallace Fowler, Glenn Lightsey, and Hans Mark, Electrical Engineering Professor Bill Bard, and Dr. John Valasek from Texas A&M University. The steering committee reviewed the project several times, listened to student feedback, and provided input. Department staff members Marlin Kingsley and Mark Maughmer also provided additional support.

As with any successful project, reflection is important.

“Overall, I think the year was successful. Things can always improve but we achieved most of our objectives,” Chaput said. “We will be doing it again next year. A new addition in the fall will be to have the students start using some of the equipment such as the autopilot during the first semester.  It will give them hands on experience that they can also use to simulate and test their conceptual ideas using computers.”

View more photos of the Senior Aircraft Design competition in our Flickr set.