KU aerospace engineering students soar in aircraft design competition

KU aerospace engineering students soar in aircraft design competition

Imagine flying regionally from Kansas City to, let’s say, Little Rock, Ark., in a pod picked up by an airplane like a hawk in flight clutching an egg, and then deposited similarly at your destination.

That’s pretty much the vision of an undergraduate team of University of Kansas aerospace engineering students. Their pod transport design won them one of more than a half-dozen awards that KU took home this year in the largest aerospace design competition in the world.

Winning at this competition has been going on for more than three decades for KU, which is listed among the top 100 engineering schools in the country by U.S. News and World Report. Its aerospace program is recognized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics — the world’s largest aerospace technical society — as a top place to be for aircraft design.

“It is a big deal for us,” Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, KU aerospace engineering professor, said of the wins.

The institute’s annual competitions are judged by companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“If you win an AIAA competition, it will draw attention to you. It will help you get a job. It puts you on the radar,” said Duane Hyland, spokesman for the institute. “And students who come out of KU’s aerospace engineering program are really highly desirable to aerospace engineering firms.”

KU has some of the best student aircraft designers in the world, Hyland said. The school has logged more wins in the institute’s design competition than any other institution of higher learning.

KU students have been winning this design competition since 1981.

“And the competition is stiff,” Barrett-Gonzalez said. “Schools compete from around the world.”

Over the years, KU has won more than 70 AIAA awards and has taken home first place overall 18 times in the last 30 years.

This year, however, the university set a new mark: Every student in KU’s aerospace engineering 2014 graduating class was part of at least one award-winning design team in the latest AIAA international competition. KU teams placed first in two of the five competition categories, second in three categories and third in three categories.

After getting the AIAA specifications for each competition category last December, teams using 3-D drafting software designed, but did not build, the most cost-effective and efficient aircraft that they could come up with to complete the task laid out by the AIAA specifications.

Katie Constant of Roeland Park competed on two teams. One came away with a first-place award, and the other a second.

“It was quite exciting,” Constant said. “But there was a lot of hard work, late nights, fast food and Red Bull (energy drink) runs.”

She and her teams worked together every day for five months. The team that won a first-place award designed a turboprop plane that ended up being what Barrett-Gonzalez called a “relatively conventional looking aircraft,” except with wingtips that bent or flexed the way some big birds’ wings do while in a glide.

The design would burn 30 percent less fuel and potentially lower commercial ticket prices by 15 percent. And the ride, Barrett-Gonzalez said, would be much smoother — “closer to a Cadillac than a compact. It was a brilliant design.”

Story by Mará Rose Williams, The Kansas City Star