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Student engineering team completes first flight; makes adjustments to aircraft

A team of NMSU aerospace and mechanical engineering students is busy preparing its custom-designed radio-controlled aircraft for an AIAA competition in Kansas later this semester.


A New Mexico State University engineering student works on the structural design of the radio-controlled plane the team will compete with later this semester.
Neal Riebel has been working on the structural design team for NMSU's Design/Build/Fly student competition. (Courtesy photo)

Twenty-five students are participating in the Student Design/Build/Fly competition, held by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. After working overnight, the team had its first successful flight on the morning of Feb. 19 at the NMSU campus.

"I have been watching the team, and among the three times that NMSU has participated in this competition, this year should be the most promising," said Young Lee, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. "The students are better prepared, and they've made arrangements far ahead of time. They have even left room for emergency situations."

This is Lee's first time serving as faculty adviser to the team.

At the competition, the plane must complete three different missions. As part of the "ferry flight" mission, students have four minutes to complete as many laps as possible around a track. Another mission involves getting the plane up to 100 meters as quickly as possible, and then using a device called an altimeter to drop two liters of water.

"The plane must be able to complete a test in which the plane is solely held up by the wingtips with the maximum payload inside the fuselage," explained Coulton Sadler, lead engineer and aerospace engineering major. "For this competition, that would be two liters of water or approximately four and a half pounds."

"We are using vertical carbon fiber plates to help add the structural support needed to withstand this test," he said. "The rest of the plane is a mix of bulkheads in both directions, and the wings are comprised of several airfoil-shaped bulkheads. Expanded polystyrene - EPP foam - is also used to fill out the rest of the aircraft shape and add a little bit to the structure."

Katrina McGarrah, aerospace engineering major, participated in last year's competition, and said that although the requirements were different, she is taking the lessons she learned then and applying them to this task.

"We learned a lot about time management and leadership qualities," she said. "This year we started earlier, so we have time to do more testing."

McGarrah pointed out that the most challenging obstacle, so far, has been creating a system for the water-drop.

The the cost to build the plane is roughly $300-$400.

"We spent a lot of money on testing-materials," she added. "Once we actually had our manufactured parts, it took us about four or five days to build the plane."

Sadler estimated that the total cost of the project is about $7,000, including about $3,000 for travel.

"Our sponsors include Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Academy, New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc. and an individual donation," he said.

Prior to constructing the plane, the team had to submit a report detailing the proposed design of the aircraft and an explanation of why that design was chosen.

Although the competition isn't until April, the team still has plenty of work to do before then. Some of the adjustments that need to be made include increasing the wingspan, changing the frame of the tricycle layout and increasing the pitch of the propeller to create more thrust.

"Our plane was probably too heavy to fly well with the payload inside," said Sadler. "So we have redesigned the plane to reduce the material used, which has reduced the overall weight by about a pound."

NMSU's flight teams have not completed the missions in past competitions, but Lee is optimistic about this year's challenge.

"Our minimum objective is to complete all the missions," he said. "I'm sure we can achieve that. Who knows what else we will accomplish."