TMCNet:  Oklahoma State University teams ready unmanned planes for competition

[March 09, 2012]

Oklahoma State University teams ready unmanned planes for competition

STILLWATER, Mar 09, 2012 (The Oklahoman - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Gingerly, Taylor Mitchell lifted the three-foot, orange-and-white striped plane from the workbench and stood it on its tail.

He looked around at his teammates and grinned.

"We've got a plane!" he said.

Mitchell, an Oklahoma State University senior, is a member of one of two student teams that will be rolling out the planes they designed and built as a part of the College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology's unmanned aerial vehicle program.

The teams -- one orange, the other black -- finished their prototypes Wednesday and plan to fly them Sunday. The teams will take what they learn from those flights and make any modifications necessary.

The planes are part of the students' senior capstone projects. In April, the teams will enter their designs into Speedfest II, an unmanned aerial vehicle competition the university has hosted the past two years. The two teams will compete against a visiting team from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Oklahoma City.

Besides being a good learning experience for the students, Speedfest helps the university build on an area that's becoming an economic cornerstone for the state, said Andrew Arena, a professor in OSU's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

Oklahoma has a substantial and growing footprint in the drone industry.

Research and design work is being done at OSU's Stillwater campus as well as University Multispectral Laboratories in Ponca City and its UAV flight center in Lawton. OSU is the only university in the country to offer a Ph.D. program in unmanned aerial vehicles.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has been one of the industry's chief cheerleaders. Last year, she formed a council to promote the state as the best site for aerial vehicle manufacturers to locate. Arena is one of 13 members on that council.

One of the main ways the state can make itself more attractive to those companies is by producing people who are qualified to work in the field, Arena said. That means getting high school students interested in disciplines related to science, technology, engineering and math -- commonly known as STEM -- and showing them what a career working with unmanned aircraft might look like.

To try to accomplish that, the school invites high school teams to compete in Speedfest, Arena said. That's important, he said, because high school students have a range of choices nearby for robotics competitions, but far fewer for aeronautical engineering.

Seven high school teams are registered for Speedfest II. Arena said he's encouraged by that number, because it means Oklahoma students are taking interest in the field. When those teams come to the competition, they'll be able to watch flights by collegiate teams as well as demonstrations from working unmanned aircraft piloted by professionals.

That level of exposure could help pique the students' interest in a field that's becoming a growing part of Oklahoma's economy, he said.

"Hopefully they'll move into a career in aerospace engineering," he said.

Educational purpose To a casual observer, the competition may look like groups of college students playing with model airplanes.

But Wes Combs, a graduate assistant for the class, said it serves an important educational purpose.

Unlike many academic programs, where senior projects may consist of presentations or research papers, the students in this class are forced to put their training into practice to design, build and fly the aircraft. The students do every bit of the work themselves, he said, starting with raw materials and finishing -- ideally, at least -- with a functioning unmanned aircraft.

"We actually take it the next step," he said. "Each of these airplanes started out essentially as a roll of cloth and a bucket of epoxy." Senior David Grismore, the black team's lead engineer, said that practical aspect of the training can make a world of difference.

Everyone knows a plane needs a fuselage, wings and something to propel it, he said. But designing an airplane on a computer and transferring that design to the real world is more difficult.

Certain things might not fit the way they're supposed to, Grismore said, or the design may be so small that students can't get their fingers into spaces to turn or tighten parts. Ultimately, he said, it's difficult to know exactly how a design will perform until it's tested.

"The devil's in the details," he said.

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