Soaring or Blasting Off: AE Freshmen Have the Option


To soar or to blast off? For freshmen in Aerospace Engineering at Illinois, that is the question.

Each semester, students entering the Aerospace Engineering program are encouraged to choose either AE 100 AD (Aircraft Design) or AE 100 SD (Spacecraft Design) as an introductory elective.

In Aircraft Design, students investigate fundamental concepts of aerodynamics, performance, stability and control, propulsion and structures as applied to airplanes. Flying vehicle demonstrations are presented, discussed, and analyzed, with an emphasis on design and practical considerations in aerospace engineering. The most fun part comes near the end of the semester when the students demonstrate the principles they’ve learned by dividing into teams to build and fly a remotely controlled flying wing.

In Spacecraft Design, students learn principles of rocket, satellite, and space mission design, as well as space environment. Working in teams, students plan a mission and build their own payload modules that they then get to launch on model rockets. The students analyze the measured altitude, acceleration, and attitude data using filtering techniques and a MATLAB, a scientific programming language, code for predicting the rocket trajectory.

A total of 55 students enrolled in the Fall 2012 Aircraft Design course that AE Department Head Philippe Geubelle taught. Students in groups of five built their aircrafts from foam and a reinforcing fiberglass frame, and recycled previous classes’ electronic devices, including actuators, speed controllers, receivers and motors. Applying knowledge gained from the coursework, the students made all design decisions: choosing whether to place the propeller in the front or back of their flying wing, and figuring out how to size the elevons for controlling pitch and roll, and how to distribute the weight of the battery, speed controller, receiver and actuators.

“A key emphasis of the course is on the stability of the aircraft,” Geubelle said, “and on the position of the center of gravity relative to the aerodynamic center of the flying wing.”

Students also prepared papers on their work, and included a technical drawing.

Toward the end of the semester, AE Prof. Greg Elliott, an experienced RC plane pilot who designed the aero course with AE Prof. Michael Selig, tested the students’ designs by flying each aircraft in an open area near Memorial Stadium. Each of the planes needed to make a loop and a circuit, Geubelle said.

“In the future, we would like to determine a way for students to have flying control,” he said.

View a video of the flight tests.

Students do get to launch their own rockets if they choose the Spacecraft Design option. They also build their own payloads that are placed in cansats, soda pop can-looking canisters that are loaded on sleds then bolted inside the recoverable rocket bodies. The payloads contain both downward and outward facing cameras for videotaping the flight, and measurement devices, such as altimeters and accelerometers, for collecting data.

“We analyze the drag coefficient of the rocket and compare it with the model, then write a report on the findings,” said AE Prof. John Lambros, who taught the spacecraft portion of the course this past fall.

Lambros’ students, divided into 10 teams of four, traveled to a farm near Monticello, Illinois, for the launch. The expedition required Federal Aviation Administration clearance and suitable weather. “Rain can stop it, but worst of all is wind,” Lambros said. “Twenty miles per hour wind is too much.”

When launched, the rockets shoot up to 4,000 feet into the air then drift to earth by parachute. Students retrieve the rockets – at times landing up to a mile from the launch site – and begin the work of analyzing data. The real science part of the class comes in the analysis, Lambros said. “There’s building stuff, but there’s also understanding how it works.”

Both the aircraft and spacecraft design courses provide students with valuable concepts to begin their studies in aerospace engineering, and Geubelle said AE faculty are considering adding more components to the course. “These are nice examples of hands-on design, and encourage the students to become involved in other projects in AE and in the College (of Engineering),” he said.

Photos from both aircraft design and spacecraft design classes can be viewed from the Aerospace Engineering Facebook page.

Written by Susan Mumm
Posted on January 11, 2013