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Rose-Hulman's Zephyrus Completes Missions; Escapes Dust and Wind

April 19, 2011

"Dust devils, high winds, up/down drafts, and cacti are just a few of the uncontrollable events wreaking havoc on competition flights we've seen in the past.  Hopefully Mother Nature will be friendlier this year." - Elliot Schmidt (GR)

Design/build airfield
The airfield in Tucson, Arizona, site of the 2011 Design/Build/Fly Competition

Good handling, high performance, practical and affordable construction, any one of these would seem like success in a home-grown remote controlled airplane. But the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics) requires planes competing in its Design/Build/Fly competition to demonstrate all of these qualities and more. For example, this year's plane, when dismantled, had to fit into carry-on sized luggage as it headed to competition in Tucson, Arizona. The team also had to show that the plane was maneuverable while carrying a steel bar and a number of golf balls on board.

On the weekend of April 16, Rose-Hulman's Design/Build/Fly team traveled to Tucson to fly the Zephyrus, a plane they had spent months building and testing. This year's team diverged from the path set by previous Rose-Hulman teams, which have not allowed much time in their schedule for testing. In contrast, this year's team was all about testing.

"We held an aggressive schedule and completed the first prototype three months earlier than prior teams," said Caroline Winters, a senior on the team. With a completed prototype Zephyrus, the team spent the next few months improving the plane, using test flights and "experimental testing and validation procedures" to dictate the prototype's evolution.

"Based on previous experiences," said Winters, "we knew that many aerodynamic principles would either not scale well or would have large uncertainties."

As a result, where previous Rose-Hulman Design/Build/Fly teams came up short, the Zephyrus succeeded, becoming the first RHIT plane to complete all three missions. Breaking through this historic wall, the team aimed to finish in the top 25% of the 80-plus competition teams.

Competition began with a safety and technical inspection, which had to be cleared before the plane could even take the air. Video from the competition shows how easily design issues can cause a plane can topple, weave, dip, and otherwise display uncontrollability.

"The most challenging factor for design was the weight of the unloaded plane," said senior team member RJ Bordner.  "The team was constantly trying to remove weight while maintaining controllability, structural integrity and a competitive edge."

As the weekend wore on, desert wind phenomena, the "uncontrollable events" Schmidt had referred to, began to intensify, causing a lot of crashes by the Sunday round. But even on Saturday, Rose-Hulman caught their share of nature's curve balls. According to graduate student Elliot Schmidt, "On our second flight, which we completed late Saturday, our pilot Mark Flemming skillfully maneuvered through a dust devil when entering his second turn on the flight course."

Design Team article

The 2011 Rose-Hulman Zephyrus team came up against more than 80 teams from all over the world, including Slovenia, Thailand, Turkey, Israel, and the UK. From all over the U.S., many top schools joined the roster, including two teams from MIT.

"This year's greatest competition came from Georgia Tech and USC," said team member Elliot Schmidt.

The Georgia Tech entry was a cool, graceful slow flyer, as their test video illustrates.

Design/Build/Fly offers students a hands-on way to accomplish a real-world project while gaining recognition in the aeronautics industry. Rose-Hulman seniors have set their sights on industry from early on, and you can hear it in the way they equate "project" with "product." "This is a capstone project," Senior Mark Fleming points out, "where seniors have full control over the design, testing, and delivery of the product."