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VIDEO: ODU Team Takes Third Place in International Aircraft Design Competition

By James Harkins

This spring, a team of students from the Old Dominion University Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, along with department professor Drew Landman, placed third in an international competition featuring 75 universities.

The March competition, hosted by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in Lakeland, Fla., challenged students to build a portable aircraft to fit within the confines of a small container.

The ODU team designed a radio-controlled plane that could be easily assembled and weighed roughly one pound. Small aircraft like these could propel the aerospace industry forward and serve as a basis for a new generation of aircraft used for rescue, military operations, inspections, construction, or many other purposes.

The aircraft was developed as a senior project by 12 students, who each contributed in unique ways to the project. They described the creative process as a lot of trial and error, with each test providing new insights on how they could improve the design. At one point, the wings of the plane were ripped off by 20-mile-per-hour winds, to which the team responded by reinforcing the spar to make it stronger.

"I gained a lot of hands-on experience because we had to build everything from scratch," said team member Christopher Vanostrand, a senior from Norfolk. Vanostrand emphasized how the project provided a valuable learning experience that could be applied outside the classroom.

During the competition, aircraft were judged on several criteria, including the weight of the plane, payload it can carry and a presentation by the creators. Another senior, George Altamirano, elaborated on the presentation, saying the team had to explain why they used certain materials and designed the plane in the way that they did.

Getting into the competition was a hurdle in itself.

"It requires an SAE membership, entrance fee, aircraft inspection and technical report beforehand," Landman said. "The contest fills up very quickly, so signing up early is extremely important."

There were three classes of aircraft. The ODU students entered under the micro class, the smallest of the aircraft designs.

The introduction of drones and other types of unmanned aircraft has changed the landscape of the aerospace industry immensely in recent years. The competition is a result of that growth, demonstrating an ever-growing demand for smaller, lighter and cheaper unmanned aircraft.

The aircraft created by this team of students weighs under a pound, yet is able to carry three pounds. Its unique design allows the plane to fit in a very small box, which could allow for many more individuals or organizations to take advantage of its utility. Such technology may play an important role in the future of unmanned flight.

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