Design Build Fly offers motivation outside of the classroom
The airline passengers are bouncy balls of different weights and sizes, their individual restraint systems are rubber bands, and their suitcases are just blocks of wood, but this past year’s Design Build Fly team treated their assignment to create a passenger airplane as if they were the real thing. Jorge Aranda, who has been involved in DBF all of his three years in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois and will be president of the club this coming year, described what participation in the club means to him as well as some of this year’s specific challenges.
“I need more than just coursework to understand what it is that aerospace engineers really do and I like to be able to apply what I learn in class. Design Build Fly allows me to do just that,” Aranda said. “Our team has a lot of control on the type of design we want the final competition aircraft to be. We can steer it any way we want. We can make an ambitious experimental design such as folding wings or stick to a conventional design much like what you might see at commercial airports. That’s the fun—the amount of control we have to engineer the best performing aircraft possible.”
Aranda explained that DBF is both a club and a class. AE Assistant Professor Phil Ansell taught the DBF 199 class, but this fall new AE Clinical Associate Professor Jason Merret will teach it.
“We encourage our members to take the class because they’ll get credit for it just like any other class they take at the university,” Aranda said. “You don't have to be in the class to be in the club, though. It's for those members who are more interested than just being in the club alone. On quad day, we like to make it clear to students who sign up that if they join the club, they might as well join the class too. It’s basically receiving class credit for participating in an engineering organization here at university. And you can repeat the course every year for credit.”
Aranda said in past years there have been just a couple of strong members leading the club but this year was different. “We stress that everyone has a voice in the development of the final competition aircraft; however, they must be able to pitch their ideas to the rest of the team.”
Of the 20 members in the club this past year, 13 were able to go to the competition in Wichita, Kansas. This year there were 81 teams from all over the world, including, Scotland, Turkey, Colombia, and Italy. And each year the DBF mission is different—this year’s mission was to design a passenger aircraft that can carry as many passengers and payload blocks (baggage) as possible. The plane also had to support line replaceable units (LRUs), which means certain parts of the aircraft had to be replaceable using the least amount of time and tools as possible.
“Our aircraft design was unconventional to begin with,” Aranda said. “When we first got the rules, we were thinking of designing a tandem wing aircraft so that its wing span would be small but give us relatively more lift than a conventional aircraft design. In the competition, there is a penalty—your overall score is divided by your aircraft’s wingspan and weight. So our goal was to make our aircraft as small and as light as possible, but still able to carry a lot of passengers and payload.”
Aranda said the team eventually hit a wall.
“Collectively, our team didn't know enough about a tandem wing design to be able to comfortably analyze and document important aircraft design factors such as stability and controls. So about six weeks before the competition, we decided to switch to a conventional design and start over, designing our aircraft from scratch. What we learned from that struggle was to take the initiative and do research on the design our team picks early on in the preliminary design phase, shortly after the rules are released.”
Once they got to Wichita, the team realized what they were up against.
“When we got to the competition, we saw that a majority of the aircrafts that other schools designed were either very small or very large in size. Very few designs were of medium size like our aircraft. For example, the size of the winning aircraft’s wingspan was only about 16 inches. It didn't carry a lot of passengers but it was lighter and faster. On the other hand, I believe the aircraft that carried the most passengers was 60. They get a lot of points, but their aircraft was pretty big like so their score was divided by the wingspan and dropped to a low number.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to bring as many of the team to the competition as were available is because we learn so much from seeing the other aircraft designs and solutions to the mission challenges,” Aranda said.
Of the 13 team members that came this year, the majority were new members. “It was interesting to see the new members voice their opinions at the competition. Like when we decided to reduce the number of our passengers from 12 down to eight. That was a collective decision. It was great to see the members develop their critical thinking skills in terms of design and decision making.”
Although the primary Design Build Fly mission is to win the competition, Aranda said if they don’t get into the top 10, like this year, they find another driving factor.
“This year we found that it was to help team members develop both soft skills and technical skills, particularly with the freshmen. You don’t get that through classwork and lectures alone. And with that definition, this year was a big success for the club. Learning those soft skills of working in teams and voicing your opinion can help you succeed in other jobs. It’s important to be able to offer feasible, implementable suggestions backed up with reason. And having more than half of our current members on the competition trip to learn this was a huge benefit for the club. The experience will make the club stronger and more knowledgeable next year. Now more than half of the club will be able to teach new members next year the principles of aerospace engineering design and development work.”
Aranda said the reason why some of the other members couldn’t come this year is because the competition couldn’t come at a worse time in the semester—just before finals. Due to looming finals, Aranda said they cultivate a scholarly culture for those on the trip. Each evening, everyone gathers in one or more of the hotel rooms to create what Aranda called “a mini Grainger” to study. “It’s not a vacation. It’s work.”
The rules for next year’s competition will be available in September, so it’s definitely a school year project. It’s not something you can get a jump on by working on it over the summer.
Aranda, who is from Gurnee, Illinois, would like to have a career in aerodynamics or structures. He has a summer internship at the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington.