Meticulous planning, countless test flights, and good old-fashioned math were key to Virginia Tech’s recent second-place finish at the international AIAA Design Build Fly competition.

The contest, held April 19-22 in Wichita, Kansas, attracted 720 students from 77 teams in 16 countries, making it the largest Design Build Fly competition in the event’s 22-year history.

At the competition, student teams design, fabricate, and demonstrate the flight capabilities of unmanned, electric-powered, radio-controlled aircraft to meet specified mission requirements. The challenge  of this year’s competition was to design a dual-purpose regional and business aircraft, in which the plane was required to safely carry at least one “passenger,” represented by a rubber ball.

Back in September when Virginia Tech’s team was assembled, they carefully reviewed the request for proposal and began doing some calculations based on the competition’s scoring equation. The team, led by eight seniors and comprised of about 40 undergraduate students from the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering in the College of Engineering, figured their best option for the highest possible score was to lower the wingspan and the aircraft’s weight. Also, senior aerospace engineering students Sapna Rao and J.P. Stewart had previously attended the competition as underclassmen and knew that the group needed to be more organized in their schedule this year to be competitive.  

In their lab space located in the Joseph F. Ware Jr. lab, the team designed and built their plane using foam, computer numeric control machine (CNC) material, and carbon fiber. The final plane design had an 8-inch wingspan and weighed in at approximately one pound. Their passenger restraint system was manufactured using a ring “seat” for the passenger, secured with fishing net from a local pet store.

Throughout the year, the group held design reviews with their faculty advisors, Rakesh Kapania, Pradeep Raj, and Pat Artis, who lead the senior capstone design projects. Outside of the aerospace and ocean engineering department, the team also relied on design reviews and feedback from industry mentors at Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works.

Seniors Brady Reisch, Sapna Rao and John Kiene modify their plane in the Joseph F. Ware Jr. lab
Seniors Brady Reisch, Sapna Rao, and John Kiene modify their plane in the Joseph F. Ware Jr. lab.

Written reports were submitted to the AIAA and scored in February, impacting the order of flights at the competition. Based on their written report, Virginia Tech’s team was No. 30 in the mission flight schedule. The team conducted more than 30 test flights on the asphalt airstrip located at the Kentland experimental aerial systems laboratory.

Sixteen team members, including eight seniors, traveled to Wichita for the competition, which consisted of one ground mission and three flight missions. The first flight mission was to complete three laps around the 1,000-foot course with no added weight. The team successfully completed the first mission and moved on to the ground mission. The ground mission required teams to replace two line replacement units, such as a battery or a control surface, chosen by a roll of dice.

The second flight mission was flying the same distance with the maximum number of “passengers,” represented by plastic bouncy balls. The team chose one passenger to maintain the lowest weight possible in their design. During this mission, the team had a slight issue with the mode of their transmitter, which affected takeoff and required a small repair. After completing the second mission, the team held strong in fifth place.

The third and final mission was completing as many laps as a team could achieve with passengers and an added payload within 10 minutes. The team chose to carry one passenger and a 1-ounce payload block and to complete one mission lap. The mission scores were combined, then divided by a rated aircraft cost that consisted of the plane’s empty weight multiplied by its wingspan.

“Weather is always a factor at the competition,” Rao, project manager, explained. “Here in Blacksburg, we did test flights in snow, rain, and in large gusts of wind. We needed to be able to withstand all conditions and wanted to avoid any surprises at competition.”

All the testing back in Blacksburg paid off as most teams were forced to fly in wind or rain at some point. Other teams were unable to complete their final flight missions due to weather conditions. At the end of the weekend, Clarkson University took home the top prize with Virginia Tech close behind in second place.

Virginia Tech’s Design Build Fly team included seniors Susan Bowen, Zoey Guernsey, Erik Higgins, John Kiene, Austin Kleinfelter, Sapna Rao, Brady Reisch, and J.P. Stewart; underclassmen Shreya Chandramoulli, Billy Jennings, Devin Nowall, Avery Sebolt, Matt Svoboda, and Robert Tulloss, all of aerospace and ocean engineering; Atul Kumar of industrial and systems engineering; and Kush Pandit of mechanical engineering.

Industry sponsors of the team include Aurora Flight Sciences, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Leidos, The Student Engineering Council, Solidworks, Airtech, and Igus.

Written by Jama Green