August 21, 2019
By Noah Pflueger-Peters
UC Davis mechanical and aerospace engineering senior design teams finished first and third in NASA’s 2018-19 Aeronautics University Design Challenge. The designs are the culmination of two quarters of work through the senior design course, led by Professor Case van Dam.
This year’s competition asked students to design a commuter aircraft capable of transporting cargo and a small number of passengers in rural and suburban areas. The aircraft also needed to have short takeoff and landing (STOL) capabilities, along with an option for autonomous piloting. Students based their designs off technology that will likely be available by 2025, the target date for the design to enter the market.
While this type of aircraft currently exists, it’s extremely expensive to use. Optimizing the design and adding a self-piloting option will make the operation much more feasible.
The UC Davis BovineWorks team won first place thanks to their research and quantitative analysis-driven design that exceeded all of NASA’s performance requirements. They used technology such as real-time terrain and weather monitoring and customized wing and propeller designs, among others, to increase efficiency while developing an infrastructure to safely support autonomous and manned operations. The team prioritized safety by subjecting their design to adverse conditions like heavy winds, engine loss and tripped air flow while following FAA regulations so it would be cleared to fly.
“Our goal was to design the most optimized, cost-efficient and reliable aircraft we could in 20 weeks,” said team leader Dahlia Pham ’19. “It was awesome to have a group of like-minded teammates who wanted to go all out on designing a good plane. We were driven to exceed all of NASA’s requirements and out-compete any other 9-passenger aircraft design.”
The Flying Squirrel Team, which took third, looked to “crazy designs from the 60s” for inspiration. They used circulation control technology to generate lift while optimizing STOL capabilities. Since the team had a variety of expertise, different parts of the aircraft were assigned to different group members and then brought together for tests. The team then adjusted their design based off of rigorous test to optimize the design and make the plane faster and capable of flying longer distances.
“There were a lot of iterations and redesigns because finding out how to take off or land in the shortest distance possible depended on so many interwoven factors,” said team lead Savannah Buchner ‘19.
UC Davis has a reputation for success in NASA’s University Design Challenge. MAE senior design teams finished first, second and third last year, tied each other for second in 2017 and placed first and second in 2015.
As winners, the teams will visit the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA this September to tour the facility and present their designs.
“My first childhood dream was to build airplanes and I hope to dedicate my career to engineering the next generation of aircraft,” said Pham of the BovineWorks team. “It’s been amazing for my classmates, my team and me to be recognized by NASA for our work.”