Aircraft Design Teams
Left: Assuming Incompressible Senior Aircraft Design Team, 2022; Right: Lift and Drag Queens Senior Aircraft Design Team, 2022

Lift and Drag Queens and Assuming Incompressible – for those familiar with senior aircraft design at UT Austin’s Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics (ASE/EM), these clever team names probably don’t seem that out of the norm.

But it’s not just the team names that make them unique. After spending last fall semester learning how to apply systems engineering processes and principles to aircraft design, these teams of aerospace engineering (ASE) seniors brought their own aircraft (technically referred to as a Technology Demonstrator Vehicle or TDV) to life this spring. Each team selected a ready-to-fly radio control model aircraft based on their design requirements. Students then modified various parts of the aircraft including the wings, mission and power systems and avionics to meet mission requirements. 

Final touches to the airplanes included a myriad of vibrant colors and designs and students created team t-shirts to match their TDV’s “personality.” The shirts were a bonus and provided by Greg Zwernemann, a professor of practice in ASE/EM who has been teaching the aircraft system engineering design capstone course since the fall of 2018.

“They do love their team names and shirts,” said Zwernemann shortly before the end-of-semester fly-off competition, as students on the Lift and Drag Queens team excitedly showed off their concert-like shirts which included “tour dates” on the back. Assuming Incompressible team members designed their own individual t-shirt designs with markers.

Technology Demonstrator Vehicle
Lift and Draq Queens Technology Demonstrator Vehicle

Collaborating to Solve Real-World Challenges 

For the first time ever this year, computational engineering (COE) seniors collaborated with ASE seniors to develop better search and rescue map generation and automated payload drops, and to improve data processing for each team’s unmanned aerial system (UAS).

Aerospace seniors specializing in the atmospheric track have been participating in a competitive fly-off to demonstrate the development of their UAS as part of the senior aircraft design capstone course series since 2012. And now, bringing COE seniors into the process has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for both senior design courses.

"The collaboration created an opportunity for COE students to work on projects that required them to deliver working prototypes of systems to help aircraft design teams meet their mission goals of automatic target recognition and precision payload delivery for search and rescue,” said Raghav Mahalingam, an ASE/EM lecturer and the COE senior design course instructor.

aircraft design members
Computational engineering students collaborated with aerospace students on aircraft design for the first time this year.

Mahalingam said that these collaborative projects include significant technical challenges related to software and hardware that require real-time deadlines and efficient coordination and communication for success – all common themes in real-world design settings.

Computational seniors developed three teams to serve as “subcontractors” for the aircraft teams and also attended the fly-off to demonstrate their technology.

“Our team, Target Acquired, worked with Assuming Incompressible to autonomously drop payloads from their aircraft. The goal was to automate the acquisition of targets and the release of the payload by using computer vision,” said Nicholas Aufiero, a COE senior. “We had a functioning target detection algorithm, but unfortunately things didn't go as planned during the final flight. Still, it was lots of fun and I enjoyed the camaraderie that formed between the COE and ASE teams.”

The Mission and Fly-Off 

This year’s UAS mission involved using a case scenario of flooding in the Austin area – the Austin Fire Department (AFD) receives reports of water levels rising above the level of homes and directs the UAS contractor (ASE student teams) to search for people in need of assistance on roof tops of homes surrounded by water. First aid kits are dropped for people in need of immediate assistance and the AFD uses the data supplied by the UAS contractor to perform rescue operations.

After a nearly full day of flight testing and last-minute tweaks to their TDVs, both teams finally competed against each other to perform their fly-off missions on the afternoon of April 27th at the Austin Radio Control Association.

team members make final tweaks to their TDV
Assuming Incompressible team members make final tweaks to their TDV before the fly-off competition.

Due to the accuracy of their mapping and payload drops, Lift and Drag Queens ended up being the overall winners, even though Assuming Incompressible had the better system effectiveness score (cost to build, weight, payloads, endurance, etc.). Overall, both teams performed well.

Grace Kirk, the project manager for Lift and Drag Queens, said that not only was the aircraft design experience rewarding, but believes that it has also prepared her well for future engineering leadership roles.

“I have always been interested in leadership roles within engineering, so I believe this really allowed me to see how it fits into the engineering process,” Kirk said. “It was also really rewarding to use skills and knowledge learned in previous classes and apply them to our project. I never would have thought I would need to use equivalent beam theory ever again, but that was one of the first steps in analyzing our wings’ structural integrity.” 

Zwernemann said that the collaboration with the COE senior design students provided multiple benefits, including achievement of the highest fly-off competition scores to date and lessons learned on program execution.

“By incorporating a Raspberry Pi processor in the mission systems architecture of both aircraft designed by the two ASE teams, the COE students helped achieve the best target mapping and payload drop accuracy in the history of the aircraft design course,” Zwernemann said. “Both ASE and COE students learned about the benefits and challenges of executing their statement of work in prime contractor and key subcontractor roles from a management and technical interface perspective. I’m very proud of the outcome achieved by this student collaboration and I’m confident that the lessons learned will benefit their future career growth.”

View more photos of the senior aircraft design fly-off in our Flickr library or check out our Instagram story highlight.