Reaching for the Skies

NASA contests encourage students to pursue careers in aeronautical engineering.

The VT students' winning design. Image Credit: Virginia Tech.

The first A in NASA’s name is usually overshadowed by the S, representing the agency’s spectacular activities beyond Earth’s atmosphere, but aeronautics research remains a large part of the organization’s remit.  So is education and inspiring young people to pursue careers in aeronautical engineering. As part of that mission, the agency’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) puts up numerous prizes each year, and challenges students to come up with designs for solving real-world engineering problems.

ARMD’s contests include such tasks as designing Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) for fighting wildfires, designing safer airports, and designing helicopters.  Competitions are aimed at various age groups ranging from K-12 school children up to university students.

One recent challenge for college students was the design of a UAV for tracking hurricanes.  The challenge was to improve on the flight limitations of drones currently used to track and gather data on hurricanes during the Atlantic storm season which runs from June through November. As climate change makes such extreme weather events more frequent and more violent, this is a pressing problem.

“The data gathered by UAS’s is crucial to refining computer models so we can better predict not just the path of these storms, but also the process of hurricane formation and growth,” said Craig Nickol, a NASA aerospace engineer and technical lead for the contest at the agency’s Langley Research Center. “This is where current systems fall short.”

Predicting the path and strength of storms requires several days of consistent measurement, but current drones have a limited flight time of 24 hours.  NASA’s challenge was for students to design a system that can fly for seven days straight. Eight colleges submitted entries with the top three winning prizes.

The University of Virginia took third place with a design that said to have a flight endurance of 7.5 days. The life of the aircraft was estimated at 15 years, with a total lifecycle cost of about $493.7 million.

Purdue University took second place with a hydrogen-powered UAS capable of seven days of uninterrupted flight. Its approximate costs include $310 million for design, $78 million for production and operating costs of about $17,000 per flight hour.

First prize went to Virginia Tech’s team of nine university seniors who proposed a system consisting of two aircraft, each with a flight endurance of 7.8 days and using a liquid hydrogen fuel source. The estimated cost of that system was $199.5 million for production and a ten year lifecycle.

The prizes were awarded based on the level of supporting detail and documentation of the decision making process.

The University Aeronautics Engineering Design Challenge has been running for a decade.  The three winners of this year’s contest will receive a cash award through an education grant and cooperative agreement with Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.  Competitions like this are an illustration of how government agencies like NASA, without spending a fortune in tax dollars, can spur research and inspire people to pursue engineering careers.