You can’t choose the hand you’re dealt, but you can play it to win every time.
Along with every one else around the globe, the Providence Engineering Academy was dealt a tough hand in March. Having worked so hard in the lead-up to the major capstone projectâ€”to design, build, and fly a powered tethered aircraftâ€”being asked to complete the project from home was not the situation that anyone wanted. But in the spirit of problem-solving, our junior and senior engineers faced up to the challenge. After all, what is engineering all about if not solving problems?
Our last post on this project ended with the four teams designing various aircraft components using professional-grade CAD software. They had sent their designs to Mr. Meadth, who began to 3D print their fuselages and tails, cut their carbon fiber, and CNC mill their wooden wing ribs, all from the comfort (?) of his garage.
The garage workshop: where the magic happens!
Over the course of several weeks, each team’s delivery bag in the garage began to pile higher and higher with these manufactured components, along with advanced electric motors, lightweight lithium batteries, tissue paper, and other bits and pieces. Every last one of these components had been accounted for in duplicate: in a virtual CAD model and a complex spreadsheet. The CAD model held the actual design for manufacture, visualization, assembly guarantee, and mass/center-of-gravity prediction. The spreadsheet calculated wing and tail lift, which in turn yielded a force and moment balance, and also a redundant center-of-gravity prediction. (Redundancy is not a negative word in aircraft engineering!)
Quick science lesson: the center of gravity (c.g.) is where the sum of all weight is located. In other words, it’s the point at which you could balance the aircraft on your finger, or where you could hang it from a string. It is determined by the masses and locations of the individual components, and it was critical that our uncontrolled aircraft had the center of gravity forward of the wing’s lift force. Without going into the deeper explanation, having the center of gravity as close to the nose as possible means that the aircraft will be self-correcting and stable as it flies. Try attaching a paperclip to the nose of your next paper aircraft and note the dramatic improvement! This is why we ran two separate c.g. calculations using two different methodâ€”we wanted to absolutely confirm before manufacture.
Fresh off the printer, ready for delivery!
Sam and Josh work on RUBYGEM, papering and doping the wings
Mr. Meadth delivered each team’s bag directly to their respective homes. Upon arrival, each team worked hard to assemble the aircraft. This involved inserting carbon fiber spars into 3D printed wing boxes, stringing the wooden ribs evenly along the spars, covering the ribs with tissue paper, and then applying dope (a kind of water-based glue) to the paper. The doped paper dries and hardens into a kind of thin shell. The various electronics components were also connected and secured, along with the tail and undercarriage (landing gear).
At the same time, the simple tethering system had to be designed and implemented. The wooden stand sits in the middle of the flight path, and a 3D printed bearing served as an anchor point for the tether line. The tether was then attached to the wingtip. Some of the aircraft needed a little more rigging to ensure that the centripetal force didn’t rip the wingtip loose!
Fast forward to the big day. Mr. Meadth made a final decision to hold the test flights in the gym, instead of outside. The smooth floor would take one more variable out of the equation, and the enclosed space would keep out any stray gusts. When your plane only weighs about 2 pounds and floats on the breeze, a gentle wind can be your worst enemy!
Thanos steps on to the court!
First up to the plate was Nolan and Pedro. Their purple and grey monoplane had a planned weight of 800 grams (less than a liter of water). The wingspan was a fairly standard 1.06 meters (a bit more than 3 ft), with a conventional tail style and taildragger undercarriage. Mr. Meadth tied their aircraft to the tether as the excitement mounted, and Pedro took the first turn at the controls. A gentle increase on the electronic throttle, and the affectionately named Thanos rose up beautifully into the air! Nolan took a turn as well, and the team scored two successful take-offs and two successful landingsâ€”the ideal outcome!
Plan view of Thanos, taken from the CAD model
Next up was Madison and Alena. Their Airplane Baby was ready to take its first steps, with Alena at the helm. In various shades of baby blue, the 540 gram winged wonder stretched out at an impressive 1.2 meter span (about 4 ft). Their wing aspect ratio (the ratio of wingspan to chord length) was a very healthy 12, almost double that of some other teams. But would it fly?
Airplane Baby gets ready to roll!
The girls produced a set of plans for their written report
Without a doubt! Both Madison and Alena toured the gym in a somewhat rollercoaster fashion, the tether line being stretched to its limit. We estimated just a couple of feet clearance between the aircraft and the wallsâ€”enough to make any pilot sweat a little! But after a safe landing, all was well.
And now a little math. Replaying the video, it looks like Airplane Baby took about 3.5 seconds to complete a lap. If the diameter of the circle was about equal to that of the basketball court (50 ft), then the radius of the circle was half that: 25 ft. The speed of the aircraft through the air is equal to distance over time; the circumference of the circle divided by the time to get around that circle.
Circumference = 2Ï€ Ã— radius = 157 ft
Speed = distance/time = 157/3.5 = 45 ft/s
This was about 36% faster than their design speed of 33 ft/s, which only goes to show that their stable aircraft design works just as well under a variety of situations. (It may also mean that their wings weren’t as effective at generating lift as theorized!)
Sam and Joshua took to the floor after that, with a slender red aircraft tied to the tether: RUBYGEM. With a planned mass of 440 grams (almost exactly one pound), this was the lightest plane on display. Their rectangular wing planform spanned 1.08 meters, and they planned to fly at only 8 meters per second (26 ft/s). A lighter aircraft does not need as much lift to stay in the air, and so for any given wing design, it can fly slower and still generate the force it needs.
RUBYGEM steps out in style
As RUBYGEM gracefully lifted into the air, it was obvious that she indeed favored a slower style of things. Completing each lap in almost 5 seconds, the flight speed can be calculated at 33 ft/s. This is also faster than their design speed, which reinforces the theory that perhaps there is more inefficiency in the design than our theory accounts for. Sounds like real life, all right!
After successful landings, Mr. Meadth made the decision to head outside with the fourth aircraft: Big Wing Boy. And boy, was it big! At over 2 meters (6.5 ft) span, this multi-colored monoplane was just too big to spread its wings indoors. It was also designed to fly a little slower, and was very light for its size: 800 grams.
Big Wing Boy, taken from the design report
There was, however, one significant issue: while the design looked good in the CAD model and spreadsheet, the greater spans and sizes meant the physical attachment of the parts was just that much more difficult. The sheer size tended to stress the wing root joints more, so extra tension lines were strung between wingtips to help hold everything together.
Being outdoors on the grassy field, the decision was also made to give the aircraft a running hand-held start, because the wheels get caught in the grass. Risky? Yes! Mr. Meadth held Big Wing Boy aloft and kicked off his shoes to get the best launch speed possible. Given that an Olympic runner travels at around the 10 m/s mark, finding the necessary design speed of 8 m/s would be a challenge!
Ben cranked the throttle to a healthy roar, and Mr. Meadth began to dash around the circle. With a final push into the air, B.W.B. lifted up into the great blue yonder where he belonged. All seemed well… and then the unthinkable! Video footage analysis confirms that the carbon fiber stick connecting the wings to the tail tore loose from the aerodynamic loads, and no plane can ever do well without that stabilizing influence. This principle was, in fact, one of the central pillars of the second semester!
The moment of horror as the tail comes loose!
The aircraft wanted to perform, but just couldn’t remain aloft. It plowed into the grassy field after only a few seconds of genuine flight. A quick repair and a repeat attempt was launched shortly thereafter, but another half-lap was achieved with similar resultsâ€”with more permanent destruction this time! There was no third flight.
At the end of the day, what did we learn?
Challenges are there to be overcome. The project could have modified to be easier, simpler, more virtual, you name it. But that kind of logic doesn’t get you into the history books, and doesn’t give the same kind of satisfaction. Greater levels of determination can turn challenges into victory.
Theory is useful, but doesn’t account for everything. Math and physics equations and computer simulations are incredibly useful, and with high-level manufacturing can be a very good analogy of the intended outcome. But the fact is that our theoretical calculations didn’t account for a great many factors. This makes it all the more important to create robust, stable designs. The aircraft didn’t perform exactly as intended, but they did perform in the real world.
Aircraft need firmly attached tails. You may want to check the welds next time you hop on board your next 737.
Congratulations to our eight aircraft engineers, and many blessings on the four seniors, now alumni: Ben, Todd, Alena, and Madison. You have completed something to be proud of!
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