Redbuds and Rocket Fuel

DSC_7389Springtime in the Ozarks, when it seems all operations move outdoors.

When you have important business to conduct the ideal setting might be a remote woodland glade, well away from civilization. DSC_7484Better yet, by the side of a small, pristine stream, far from prying eyes, because you never know when you might have to put out a chemical fire. If, however, you hear banjo music drifting on a southerly breeze move north quickly. You’re too close to Arkansas.

Keep reading. This is not about (shame on you!) moonshine or meth.

Years ago the Miners’ Advanced Aero Vehicle Group expanded into rocketry, and the HPER (High Power Engineered Rocket Design Team) gradually moved into more and more complex projects that get expensive, fast.

You may remember last June’s biblical (three+ days wandering the desert) effort to find their 25,000-foot missile that disappeared into the beautiful Utah skies. When they finally recovered it there wasn’t much left to re-use for 2016. Nuttin’, actually, so it was start again from scratch.

The Miners decided to move all manufacturing operations in house. They’ve made molds for the composite nosecones and machined (and threaded) their own motor housings, but their biggest leap of technological faith was to set up their own rocket propellant facility.

Budgets be damned, they wanted the best regardless of cost. Their new assembly building is a DSC_7328 shiny new (to us) surplus military container about 8 feet long that set them back about $500. Their workbench is a plastic folding table and the sophisticated power blenders consist of stainless steel salad bowls paired with carefully-balanced, manually-operated wooden spoons. The custom-built oven, a plywood boxDSC_7462 lined with insulation batts and spray foam, is outfitted with heat lamps and has a cute little servo- and string-operated vent system to keep temps steady.

They “cook” the brownie-like mix after carefully mixing the propellant in the open air so that should a problem occur, people can run in any direction they choose.

They’ve been mixing and testing small batches, or grains in rocket parlance, with good results, and Friday it was time to move to full-sized motors. Chief rocket scientist Jill Davis did the precise mixing, and once ready DSC_7725the group rolled the “batter” into little pellets that looked a lot like, uh, deer droppings. Each of the pellets was carefully dropped into a cardboard tube where Matt Fogle carefully compressed their handiwork into a uniform consistency.

It’s this tube that, once the mix is fully cured, they’ll test fire late this week. Once confident of the results they’ll start producing more propellant grains; the actual motors they’ll take back to Utah.

Why all the effort? Pride of ownership, and they save a LOT of money over commercially-produced motors.

Steel Driving Women

SUN_6066Spring Break means little to the women of S&T’s Steel Bridge Design Team. They’d sooner be cutting and forming I-beams.

April Fool’s day is ignored because there’s serious work at hand. Sarah Jemison, Miranda (Randi) Cory, and the men who work for them must design, build and test a new weight-bearing bridge in less than a month.

Need more pressure? Randi is helping organize the ASCE Midcontinent Student Conference hosted by Missouri S&T. Better known as the Steel Bridge and Concrete Canoe competition, it’s coming to Rolla April 21st-23rd for the first time in nearly twenty years. The Miner bridge and canoe crews have risen to the challenge of juggling jobs, classes, building their projects and managing the entire event. They’re determined to set a hospitality standard that will never be eclipsed, even by those “big” schools.DSC_6578 (1)
Back to emergency bridge design, S&T’s initial structure failed load testing during St Pat’s week, mimicking one school’s designs famous for collapsing under the weight of their own self-importance (according to a K-State wag). For the host school to withdraw from the event would be, uh, embarrassing in the extreme. Miners would never let that happen. DSC_6568They’re taking inspiration from Jermy Jamison’s 2014 winning team by switching to a modified I-beam design. That meant finding the steel FAST, while hammering out design details in late-night meetings and cutting steel with the Design Center’s new five-axis water jet machine.
DSC_5255Both civil engineering-based teams have strong contingents of women. Miranda is the president of the Steel Bridge Team. Concrete Canoe is led by a guy (Justin Turley) but with 53% of the team women, he’s outnumbered. Who, by the way, dominated last year womens’ sprint race.

Celebrating St. Pat’s

DSC_5210 - Version 2 (3)Yeah, there’s a parade, green-painted streets, couches on lawns complete with loud music and miscellaneous empty glass and aluminum containers scattered about, and two days of “independent study” in lieu of classes.
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So what? On St Patrick’s day, in a corner of the Kummer Student Center life went on, work went on, even if the workers were “greened up.”
In a madhouse of motion the Mars Rover Team was firing up Zenith’s new carbon fiber and Plexiglas “tires” before heading to a local quarry that stands in for the Red Planet’s surface. Four hours of playing in the dirt revealed some communication errors, but their new “tires” did well.
DSC_5143Solar Car burned through a lot of 400 grit sandpaper trying to perfect the molds for their first-ever monocoque race car. They’ve abandoned 17+ years of building tubular frames in favor of a structural exoskeleton, and that means a stiff learning curve as they head into a new direction. Speaking of new directions the 2016 American Solar Challenge will leapfrog it’s way through national parks from Ohio to the Badlands of South Dakota this summer to help mark the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
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DSC_5107 (1)The steel bridge crew held a pizza-fueled strategy session in the Innovation Suite while the concrete canoe team used St. Paddy’s day to add a green stripe to this year’s watercraft and inlaid a line of shamrocks in the boat’s floor. They’re going the extra mile because S&T is hosting the concrete canoe and steel bridge competitions this year. Design team members are going all-out to make the 2016 Mid Continent Student Conference the standard against which all future host schools will be judged. And fall short they will. When over 300 guests from other schools see S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center, its fleet of support vehicles, massive manufacturing facilities, and crack(ed) professional support staff, look for the Miner admissions office to see a flood of transfer applications from the surrounding states.

SAE Aero Wrap Up.

Thanks to the change to Daylight Savings Time the Miners could do a little star gazing when they got to the airfield early this morning. The few exhausted students on hand staggered zombie-like through the dark, lit only by the headlights of what few vehicles were approaching.

Though the skies were clear predictions of 30+ mph winds by mid-day prompted event officials to announce only one flight round; no second round to help bring up your flight score average. Bad news for S&T which only completed one of yesterday’s three rounds.

With only one flight left most teams went for broke by adding more payload; a lot more payload in hopes of moving up in the rankings. That strategy meant that many planes couldn’t even escape the pull of gravity. Several planes charged down the concrete and rolled right out into the grass. A few managed to get airborne only to “porpoise” through the air, unable to respond to the pilot’s input before finally cartwheeling into the ground. Two pilots became heroes to their clients by nursing the aircraft to stay just above the weeds and out of the trees. DSC_4930
One pilot decided the only way to keep the bird in the air was to drop its payload when the machine was about two feet above the clover, roughly 98 feet below the required “drop” altitude. His skills saved the plane and earned him strong applause from the crowd.
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The Miners? They ran out of time (3 minute limit) when they had to reboot their electronics, and in the resulting rush they couldn’t get the engine started. Flooded apparently.

Pigs can run, pigs can jump, but this weekend has proven beyond doubt that that pigs can’t fly.

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We’ll wrap up with a quick look at our favorite crash.

Mud, Sweat, and Fear

DSC_4334Four days of Texas rain turned today’s flight workshop tents into bogs, swamps, lakes even. Folding chairs were just swallowed by the mud. Some teams simply moved out of the unlit tents just to be able to see what they were doing.

Round #1 of the micro class kicked off the gloomy day, and at first it seemed that some designers of these hand-launched airplane wanna-bes were just throwing them straight into the ground. DSC_4504SUN_5197
Balsa carnage on a terrible scale, and some teams showed some, uh, unorthodox launching strategies, though things got a little better for the regular class. Only one aircraft got uncomfortably close to the spectators, and a small chain-link fence absorbed the impact.
In the advanced class first round the Miners got off to a rough start. A one-two punch of a lower-than-expected engine thrust combined with the plane’s hard left bank when the rudder input called for just the opposite pancaked their new bird DSC_3967 (1)into the soil. Aside from a shattered bulkhead #216 seemed OK but the conservative strategy was to resurrect #216’s dependable prototype and move all the controls and landing gear over. That rebuild time cost them the second round, and with the first-round failure it was urgent to score valid flight points before the day was over.

Their efforts to restore “Holly” (it’s red and green)was easier than feared, as it was mainly a fuselage swap; the wings and electronics were fine. It paid off for the Miners when they SUN_6013found themselves at the front of the line for round #3. The engine behaved, the the airframe responded and they notched a flight result consistent with all their Vichy-area practice runs. Smooth flight, smooth marker drops just inside the scoring circle and a smooth landing.

Odds ‘n ends…

Where do great design ideas come to life? Sometimes, in a bar. At least one of today’s aircraft, the inflatable-winged paean to the dragonfly, is said to have been hatched over who-knows-how-many beers. Fitting perhaps, that the control surfaces resemble a beer mug with the bottom cut off. But it worked, and that’s what counts.

Pigs still can’t fly, but it’s not for lack of trying.

The only twin-engine plane, a geared-down beast from some mining school in the Dakotas, scattered baitfish in all directions when it, uh, splashed down some 100 yards from the runway.

Almost forgot.
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A strong contender for “best crash of the day.”

Engineering Idol

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A panel of Lockheed Martin judges. A stage. And you. Now please explain in 10 minutes the intricacies of your design and answer pointed questions about your design approach. That’s your introduction to SAE Aero East Design. And how it will be in the uh, adult word.
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Once out of that sweatbox it’s back to the chaos of tech inspection. A cadre of senior aerospace industry veterans pokes, prods, measures and tests everything on your aircraft except starting the engines.
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Check lists, questions, payload tests, package drop mechanism operation, flaps, rudder, all of it, while the same scenario is played out all across the convention hall for teams from Poland, Egypt, China, Canada, India, the U.S. and Brazil.
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Some teams arrive ready while others have a little work to do. No matter, these are one-off experimental devices that seldom work as expected.

The aircraft range in appearance from works of industrial art to a determined attempt to prove that yes, pigs CAN fly.A rookie team showed off their, uh, their rather robust airframe that looked
DSC_3621 (1) like it was built overnight in an Ace Hardware store; no small coincidence that one of their members actually worked in one of those “helpful hardware places.” One micro-class entry even had transparent inflatable wings, the inspiration for which may have come from a child’s “floaties.”

No matter. This is a design competition, not a beauty contest. Few people remember what these birds look like, but no one forgets how your design impacts the ground.

One wag was overheard to say “it’s not a question of if your plane will crash, just a question of when.”

Flight ops start early tomorrow, weather permitting, and that’s when the “when” comes into play.

You Know You’re at a Student Design Competition When..

After an 11-hour drive you arrive exhausted at your Ft. Worth-area hotel, flop down on the bed to recover, and from out of the parking lot darkness comes the subtle but familiar sound of a handsaw being pushed deliberately through who-knows-WHAT type of material.

And so it begins…

Update: It’s 10:00 p.m. local time. Now someone is testing their model airplane engines just outside the window.

*Sigh*

Where Are They Now?

Each year some 250 students “graduate” from S&T’s student design teams, and for their hard work they also get a bachelor’s degree almost as important to employers as their design team experience.

These grads seem to disappear into the bowels of industry perhaps to redesign Corvettes, return to campus with a pre-production Chevy Volt, and rise to an investment manager at GM Ventures about ten years down the line.

But some Miner grads carve their own path into the world, and so begins the story of Doug Hoang, his friends, and their new start-up company, Enflux.
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Doug (BS ME ’10), seen above testing engine sound levels at the Michigan International Speedway, was the 2010 engine group lead on S&T’s Formula SAE team. “Through the design team program I developed friendships with many like-minded students some of whom I took engineering classes with. Eventually some of us became roommates and that’s where we began to realize that we wanted to start a company together,” says Doug.

“Matt Brown (ME ’09) whose chief engineer’s role on the Human Powered Vehicle Team culminated in S&T being the first team ever to capture a National Championship (2007), and Elijah Schuldt (AE, EE, ’10) Advanced Aero team president (2009) and micro-class chief engineer (2010), and I stayed in touch after graduation to work on our entrepreneurial dreams.”

“Enflux began to take shape after Eli and I developed sensor technology to analyze motion in racecars. At the time I was also training to run triathlon but wasn’t getting the results I wanted and kept getting injured. I realized we could put the same racecar sensors on the body to collect data on movement during exercise, and the idea was born. why not develop a line of athletic clothing with embedded motion sensors that capture your body’s 3D movement during exercise?”
“The clothing measures the quality of your form, intensity of your workout, other advanced exercise metrics, and reports back on a smartphone app in real-time. After your workout is complete, you can review results, get coaching on your form, and view a 3D avatar performing the exercises exactly as you just did.”

“We’ve sunk a lot of our own money into this project and already lined up major investors, and our next step is a kickstarter campaign at getenflux.com that starts today.”

“All this is happening because, some ten years ago, each of us decided to join a Missouri S&T design team. Best decision we ever made.”

Ze Plane! Ze Plane!

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Uh, not this time, Tattoo.

The first design team out of the gate each year is usually Advanced Aero Vehicle Group’s airplane crew. In just over two weeks they’ll be plying the skies over Benbrook Lake, southwest of Ft. Worth Texas in the balsa wood/carbon fiber crash-a-thon known as SAE Aero.
They’ve paid the registration fees, reserved campus vehicles and submitted their design report, but they still don’t know if their aircraft can actually fly. That’s a problem.
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Thanks to the profusion of (idiots with) hobby drones the FAA has barred R/C aircraft from operation on actual VFR airfields; instead of testing on a proper runway they’re forced to use a neatly trimmed but very soggy meadow.
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Last weekend the flight crew took the as-yet unnamed aircraft out “to pasture,” while the build team stayed in Rolla to build a duplicate airframe. Just in case.
DSC_2455Pre-flight tests Friday night revealed a faulty transmitter battery, and by the time that was resolved it was too dark to fly safely. Just as well because the engine didn’t sound right, indicating a fuel mixture problem.
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Saturday morning was April weather in February, perfect flying conditions, and even better conditions for watching from a lawn chair. The Miners got the engine firing and taxied the bird around the field, but they weren’t getting the thrust needed to pry the plane from the bog.
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The ground crew changed to larger tires to better handle the thawing permafrost while the “pilots” swapped out the engine, all to no avail. It just wasn’t in the cards. Off into the sunset for now.

They’ll try again this week, but they HAVE to have a valid flight under their belts or they may have to cancel their trip to What-a-Burger land. And that, gentle readers, would be terrible.

They’re BACK!

15+ student-led design teams, doing who-knows-what, have come back from winter break all fired up to build things.
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Concrete Canoe poured their new boat and filled it with water so it cures slowly. No one has slipped any goldfish or frogs into it. So far.

Several teams have been making a mess cutting high-density machining foam. The dust makes the shop floors awfully slippery.
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Everyone pitched in to make the place sparkling clean for the UM System President’s visit, which didn’t actually happen. Good news is that teams found all kinds of missing stuff.

Our HPER rocket scientists are becoming DIY explosives “experts.” In a scenario tailor made for YouTube they’re mixing their own rocket fuel/propellant; in the SDELC conference room it was feared, but that was just practice. “Oh, no! We’ll tell you when we’re mixing REAL explosives!” was the response. Comforting words….
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Solar car has been laying up molds for the revamped vehicle. They use a choreographed/chaotic system of applying slow-cure epoxy and heavy fiberglass mats, then repeating the process to produce upper and lower body molds that look terrible on the outside, but on the inside, smooth as a KU football player’s backside.

No offense intended.