Determined Aircraft Design Seniors Adapt Projects Virtually, Complete UAV at Home

May 14, 2020
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photo of wind tunnel test
Last Atmo Standing propeller testing in ASE Low Speed Wind Tunnel. View more photos.

Since 2012, students in the Aircraft Design senior design capstone course at UT Austin have been bringing their aircraft systems to life with an end-of-year fly-off competition to demonstrate the effectiveness of their designs.

During the first semester of the capstone series, students learn how to apply systems engineering principles and processes to aircraft design through a series of lectures and by developing a Concept of Operations (ConOps) and design requirements for an unmanned aircraft system (UAS). Students select a Ready to Fly (RTF) radio control model aircraft based on their design requirements to serve as the basis for a subscale UAS design (also known as a Technology Demonstrator Vehicle or TDV). Teams then propose modifications to the RTF aircraft, including a new wing design, upgraded propulsion system and additional mission systems. 

In Aircraft Design II, student teams spend the semester designing, modifying, building and performing ground and flight testing of their TDV. Their hard work culminates with an end-of-year competitive “fly-off” where teams compete against each other by flying their TDV autonomously to demonstrate that their system design can complete mission requirements.

But this year, Aircraft Design II was different. Since students didn’t return to campus after spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they weren’t able to complete their aircraft fabrication, nor were they able to compete against each other in a fly-off competition. For students who have been working so hard on their senior design projects, this was a bit of a disappointment.

Aerospace engineering senior David Meskill, the team lead of “Last Atmo Standing,” said their team was preparing to fabricate the wings for their aircraft and had most of the electronics ready to go before spring break. They hadn’t yet flown their TDV design, but had been flying an older aircraft that they were rebuilding, modifying and flight testing extensively to validate their ConOps.

photo of last atmo standing aircraft at home
Team members from Last Atmo Standing took their UAV and its components home to complete the build and integration.

 “It’s no secret that the atmospheric senior design course can be challenging. There are some days where you are up almost all night in the BASIL (Boeing Aircraft Systems Integration Lab) working on some small wiring problem, getting the video and radio telemetry working, or getting your payload mechanism to drop properly,” Meskill said. “After all that effort to really learn the systems and personally design a vehicle that will lift off the ground all on its own, you really get attached to the project. With all the hard work that we put into this aircraft, it was a little disheartening to think that we would never see it fly.”

So much so, that Meskill and another team member, Evan Wilde, decided to take their team’s UAV home so they could finish what they started when they heard rumors that UT might move to online classes after spring break.

Meskill fabricated the fiberglass molds and camera gimbal/payload mechanism from his home using a 3D printer. Wilde worked on finishing up the wings at his house using a personal CNC router. He also integrated the TDV with the avionics and telemetry, then flight tested the aircraft using initial calibrations. Meskill said once it’s safe for the two to meet in person, they will install the camera gimbal and put the final touches on the aircraft to get it fully mission operational.

Since no official fly-off competition was possible this year, Greg Zwernemann, a professor of practice who teaches the aircraft system design capstone course, said he replaced the subscale demonstration with a requirement for the teams to design an operational system that could deliver full-size medical kits to people in need. The activity culminated in a conceptual design review followed by a system design review that used analysis to validate that their subscale TDV design could successfully demonstrate customer requirements for the operational system. All meetings were held online via Zoom.

Andrew Kulas, the team lead for “Just Winging It,” said that even though they weren’t able to return to campus to complete their aircraft or see it fly, the team was still able to complete their project virtually.

“Our team was still able to work together quite efficiently and effectively, and I think a large reason for that is that we had been a team for nearly eight months,” Kulas said. “We were already so familiar with each other and the project that we were able to overcome the adversity more easily than might've been expected.”

just winging it team working in lab
Just Winging It team members working in the Boeing Aircraft Systems Integration Lab before spring break.

 Zwernemann said he’s very proud of what the students have accomplished both last semester and this spring and that the students are leaving with a solid understanding of how to apply systems engineering principles and process to aircraft design as it is practiced in the aircraft industry today.

“Aircraft Design students continue to amaze me every semester,” Zwernemann said. “They start Design I with a solid background in aerospace engineering course work and by the end of Design II have matured into seasoned system engineers with design skills that they can apply to their jobs in Industry. It’s my privilege to mentor them on this journey.”