Mechanical Engineering Team Flies Model Plane At Nationals

Team Albatross By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., March 4, 2009 – Eight New Mexico Tech students in the mechanical engineering Junior and Senior Design Clinic have exceeded all expectations of their instructors.

This weekend, the team will put their mechanical creation to the test against more than 60 other universities at the Society of Automotive Engineers competition in Van Nuys, Calif.

From left are department chairman and team sponsor Dr. Sayavur Bakhtiyarov, Tamara Dixon, Justin Guthrie, Ben Cooper, Toby Hartman, Matt Swanson, Daniel King, Bianca Luevano, professor Dr. Warren Ostergren, team advisor Dr. Nadir Yilmaz and Bill Marcy. Not pictured: team member Keith Thomas.

In their first year, the team designed, tested and fabricated a remote-controlled airplane. The Tech team – Team Albatross – estimates that their airplane will be able to lift a payload of 22 pounds. Over the course of nine test flights, they’ll know if all their calculations, testing and preparations were accurate.

“I really didn’t expect them to get beyond design with fabrication drawings,” class instructor Dr. Warren Ostergren said. In the fall semester, Ostergren set a goal for the team to compete in its first SAE competition in the spring of 2010.

“I guess some of the biggest challenges were related to the first-time experience and not knowing what makes a good airplane,” senior Toby Hartman said. “We had to do a lot of research and calculations.”

Team Albatross put in more than 3,500 hours of labor to meet their objective and build their prototype airplane in time for the competition. They also spent about $3,000 to build the plane. The team leaves Thursday, March 5, and will fly their plane Friday to Sunday, March 6 to 8.

Team advisor Dr. Nadir Yilmaz was confident the team would find success. Dr. Yilmaz said the majority of the research and development that Team Albatross would be typically learned in graduate courses.

“They have done a great job and I’m sure we’ll be proud of them,” he said.
Hartman, who spearheaded the team’s efforts, is the team’s lone May 2009 graduate.

“I’m definitely getting really nervous,” Hartman said Wednesday. “We haven’t test-flown it yet, and because of that, we’re putting a lot of faith in our theoretical work. But everyone on the team worked really hard, so I’m confident it will fly.”

The rest of the team will return next year to improve on this year’s inaugural effort: Justin Guthrie, Ben Cooper, Tamara Dixon, Matt Swanson, Daniel King, Bianca Luevano and Keith Thomas. Swanson is a sophomore volunteer who asked to join the team, but won’t enroll in Junior Design Clinic until next fall.

All of the team members, except Guthrie, will be in Van Nuys for the competition.

This team is one of 13 mechanical engineering Junior and Senior Design Clinic teams that are solving problems for industry, military and government. Most of the other teams have until May to put their work to the test.

Team Albatross is the first from the state of New Mexico to enter the SAE competition. Department chairman Dr. Sayavur Bakhtiyarov hopes this is just the beginning of a New Mexico Tech legacy in airplane design competitions.

In starting from scratch, Team Albatross employed all facets of their mechanical engineering education. First, they studied the airflow using StarCCM software. Then, they drew a design and modeled the plane in SolidWorks. Using a rapid prototype machine, also called a 3-D printer, they fabricated specialized components. The tail and wing sections are prototypes based on their computer modeling.

Based on their computer modeling and practical testing of several propellers, they selected a propeller they think will work most efficiently with their design. To gauge the efficiency and power of different propellers, students attached the engine and propeller to a wheeled cart, then timed and measured the performance.

The team fabricated nearly all the components apart from the engine and propeller. Using the 3-D printer, Team Albatross fabricates the wing ribs, tail section, leading edge and the fuselage box.

“This rapid-prototype technology has only been around for three or four years,” Hartman said. “It’s an up-and-coming technology and it definitely gives us a leg up on the competition to have that at our disposal.”

In addition, many – but not all – of the plane components were tested in the new wind tunnel at MSEC. By the beginning of the spring semester in mid-January, the team started assembling their flier. Once the plane was put together, the wings were covered in a strong plastic.

Dixon said most of other competitors will probably use balsa wood to build their planes. The Tech team used mostly aluminum for the frame, plastic for the fuselage and small portions of wood. Each contest airplane must use the same engine, so the test is truly a design competition.

The main reason the team hasn’t fully tested the airplane yet is that none of the team members have experience with radio-controlled operations. At the competition in Van Nuys, they will have assistance from the president of the local radio-controlled plane club.

They took the plane to the remote-controlled plane runway west of campus and tested the motor, but they didn’t want to get the plane off the ground for fear of damaging any components.

The SAE specifications were that the height, width and length of the plane combined could not exceed 175 inches. With a wing-span of 91 inches, the Team Albatross plane’s specs add up to 174½ inches. The payload box, which contains the fuselage, is 5” x 5” x 10”.

Each plane will take off from a 200-foot runway, make a 180-degree turn, then land on a 400-foot runway. The team will also give an oral presentation, which Hartman compared to a sales pitch.

An important part of the competition is estimating how much weight the plane can carry. Bonus points are awarded for predicting the payload correctly. The competition also gives an award for the best crash.

“We hope to win an award, but not for the best crash,” Hartman said.

The plane disassembles for transport and Hartman hopes to bring the plane back in three pieces – not in many pieces. He said he hopes future Senior Design Clinic teams can use the plane as a template and build on the work done this year.

– NMT –