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Tech in that big Texas sky: WVU Tech SAE Aero Design team travels south for competition

This week, five members of WVU Tech’s first-ever Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Aero Design team will travel from Montgomery to Forth Worth, Texas, to compete in SAE Aero Design East, March 11-13.

SAE Aero Design team members work to bring #19 to life.SAE Aero Design team members work to bring #19 to life.

The competition challenges engineering students to design, construct and fly a remote-controlled, fixed-wing cargo plane.

The project marks another major entry for WVU Tech SAE, which is known for its work in the Society’s Baja buggy competitions. Dr. Winnie Fu, WVU Tech professor of Engineering Technology and advisor to the student chapter of SAE, said that putting together an aero design team was the next logical step for the organization.

“I’ve been looking to start an SAE Aero Design team for a while,” she said. “It is a competition that is almost purely design at heart. It provides all the benefits: engineering learning, team building and camaraderie without being costly or equipment-intensive. Team sizes also tend to be smaller, which fits in nicely with our student population.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Aero Design competition. In Texas, WVU Tech’s team – dubbed “Golden Wings” – will be facing off against 75 teams from around the world.

LS Wang, team leader and senior mechanical engineering student, said he hopes it will mark the first in a long line of successful seasons for Tech’s new team.

“It’s an international event, so it’s going to be very exciting. We’re a little nervous, but we’re confident. It’s our first time going out. We’re excited to see what we can do,” he said.

The team has been working on their #19 plane since last August. The design phase ran from then until the end of January. Now the team is wrapping up the build phase and testing their design before they make the 16-hour trip to Forth Worth on Wednesday.

The competition is divided into three components: the design portion, an oral presentation and a flight competition. In the latter, the plane is loaded with cargo and must take off from a 200-foot runway, complete a midair turn and successfully land.

The #19 plane is no handheld toy. It boasts a wingspan of eight feet and from tip to tail, the plane is over four feet long. It’s made of materials like balsa wood, pine and spruce – each material chosen for its specific properties in relation to where it would be included in the plane.

The team has quite a bit of room to design, but is required by competition rules to use a power limiter on the plane’s motor. This part prevents the motor from drawing more than 1000 watts from the battery and serves to even the playing field for each team. With standardized power limits, teams must focus on elements such as weight and flight design to make their projects stand out.

“We had to factor in the weights and structural properties of the different kinds of wood. The whole thing will weigh around 12.5 pounds with no payload, including electronics. We’re hoping it will be able to realistically move a payload of around 25-30 pounds, depending on weather and wind,” said Wang.

Wang said he’s excited to put #19 to the test because it represents the culmination of an educational journey for the entire team.

He and his teammates were able to rely on help from professors and friends from varying disciplines throughout the state. The team partnered with BridgeValley Community and Technical College to use the college’s laser-cutting machine in South Charleston. They consulted with mechanical engineering professors at Tech and at WVU in Morgantown. The group bought books on flight design, bounced ideas off of aerospace engineering students and even worked with civil engineering professors to learn about structural integrity.

“We didn’t know much about aerospace going into this, so we had to learn a lot of material. We have a lot of resources. We were fortunate enough to have that help through the manufacturing process and to have someone to let us know what kinds of problems we would be facing,” he said.

For Wang, the project has been a powerful way to connect what the team is learning in their coursework with real-world applications.

“We know how to calculate stress. We know how to make something lighter or thinner or more efficient on paper, but many times we don’t get to put those designs to the test. We learn about stuff in 100 percent perfect conditions, but in real life, we’re learning that it might not be the case. You can’t have perfect conditions, so we have to compensate and compromise to make our designs work” he said.

In all, the team has spent around $2,500 for registration, parts and material. The project is supported by SAE’s general sponsors and WVU Tech mechanical engineering alumnus Cory Igo, ‘13, is covering the team’s hotel expenditures to offset costs.

For Fu, the team’s work and upcoming competition is a sign that the student chapter of SAE is flourishing.

“I believe it shows that students, the university and our sponsors are recognizing the value of what students learn through participating in the SAE organization,” she said.

Wang agrees, and said that the team’s experience is already paying off.

“Being a member of SAE lets students work on real-world problems so they can prepare for the workforce. There are manufacturers and engineers that are looking for people like us. They need people like us because we can set up and start getting to work on the first day,” he said.

Find out more about SAE Aero Design East and get competition results on the  SAE International website.