UD engineering students build, fly a radio-controlled aircraft

Kyle Panariello, a senior mechanical engineering student at the University of Delaware, was in the middle of a final exam in December when he saw a sign pressed against the door that read: WE’RE FLYING.

The message came from one of his teammates in Senior Design, a one-semester capstone engineering design program. Over the course of the fall semester, Panariello and seven other engineering students had built a gas-fired, wooden remote control plane. Now, it was time for the first test flight.

Panariello, who is in the process of becoming a certified private pilot, got butterflies in his stomach. He hastened his pace so that he could finish the test in time to join his teammates at a field at Lums Pond State Park in Bear, Delaware. There were some last-minute tweaks to the blue and yellow plane. Right before takeoff, the throttle closed and the tail popped—some epoxy had to be applied on site. But then the team sent the plane speeding ahead for about seven seconds, and it was time to go airborne.

“Once the plane was started, I carried it over the runway, and I couldn’t have been any more excited,” Panariello said. “When the plane took off I was overcome with a surreal feeling and I couldn’t have been any happier.”

The team watched in awe as the blue and yellow plane soared above 300 feet in the air and landed safely on its landing gear on a rough terrain about eight minutes later.

“I’m not going to lie—when the plane took off, a lot of us almost got teary-eyed,” said Parth Modi, a member of the design team and former SpaceX intern.

Groundwork precedes flying

This project came together after Christos Sarmousakis, a senior mechanical engineering student with a concentration in aerospace engineering, learned about the SAE Aero Design East competition, which challenges teams of college students to design functional aircraft. This contest is held by SAE International, an association of engineers and related technical experts in the aerospace, automotive, and commercial vehicle industries.

Sarmousakis petitioned to have an SAE Aero Design project added to the offerings in UD’s Senior Design program. His team members, all seniors in mechanical engineering, joined enthusiastically.

In just one semester, the eight-member team went through the four phases of the capstone design course from problem definition and conceptual design to prototype building and testing; they used raw materials and software like SolidWorks, a computer-aided engineering modeling program, to design and build a functional, light, and strong plane.

“To start with wood, SolidWorks, and the teammates on my right and left and end up with this plane—it’s incredible rewarding,” said Anthony Balestra, a member of the design team.

The whole process was a test of each team member’s ability to solve problems and learn on the…well, yes, the fly. The team reached out to numerous outside sources to connect the dots in order to complete this newly launched UD project. The team won’t be competing in Florida at the SAE Aero Design East competition after all—only a limited number of teams can enter—but they have already earned a victory of their own.

“The project makes for a true project-driven active learning experience, and the students’ usual coursework finds a wonderful real-world connection,” said Lian-Ping Wang, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

He said the lessons learned from this project will last a lifetime.

“For me as the faculty adviser, seeing students applying knowledge in basic fluid mechanics, solids mechanics, and material science to build a functional plane is a very rewarding experience,” said Wang. “I see how good motivation goes a long way to provide an integrated system-level learning experience. The format of the mechanical engineering Senior Design course allows students to really work as a team to develop optimal solutions in an iterative manner. The students are on their way to becoming innovative engineers!”

Article by Julie Stewart