High Tension and High Fives

Classes are out but design team work goes on. Steel Bridge is in Provo, Utah, and June has Robotics in Michigan, FSAE to Toronto and Lincoln, Nebraska, Formula Electric also at Lincoln, and AAVG Rocket and Mars Rover events just an hour away from each other in the Eastern Utah desert. Each of those events validate a year of design, build, test, and repeat.
The AAVG HPER rocket team has one of the more interesting challenges; they manufacture their own motor casings and solid propellant, so if things go wrong they really go wrong, just as they did in the early years of NASA’s existence.
Chief rocket scientist Jill Davis’ team has done things right. They learned just how many threads to cut in aluminum so that tube holds together under propellant pressure. They also learned that if your propellant isn’t cured properly the motor casing can vaporize in an instant, spewing aluminum shrapnel in all directions.
Sunday they fired their smaller Helios to nearly 10,000 feet in a complete systems test powered by a commercial ($$) motor. All that was left was to validate the home-built propulsion system. With the IREC competition less than three weeks away yesterday’s rocket motor test was critical.
SUN_8332They’d bolted a heavy test stand to the ground in a distant corner of S&T’s experimental mine, just yards from where they mixed the fast-burning chemical components. Safety is paramount; nothing happens until blasting gurus DeWayne Phelps or Jimmie Taylor give the all clear.
Planning is essential. NASA often refers to a “launch window” when launch parameters are met for a successful launch. In the case of Josh and Terry the test “window” was a gap in a series of thunderstorms sweeping across central Missouri. The ignition wire, along with the steel barriers behind which they hide during the test, could be the perfect place for a lighting strike. And that would skew the test data beyond use. And melt your boots.
DSC_8715 “Fire In The Hole!” x 3, then ”3…2…1…GO!” Terry pushed the launch button and was rewardedwith a tiny puff of smoke from the rocket’s tail. And nuttin’; no fire, noise or anything. Crap, a misfire! Safety protocol says don’t approach the device for 30 minutes, and then with the SUN_8411utmost care. Half an hour of sitting in the rain, listening to thunder before Josh Lewis and Terry McGarvey carefully removed the burnt igniter that failed to start the reaction. They changed their system by doubling the electrical triggers and wrapped them in pieces of leftover fuel (the aerospace equivalent of a bigger hammer) and got the results they wanted.
DSC_8741 (1)A puff, a small flame, then a long hissing roar that seemed to go on for minutes. Burn time was probably just 10-15 seconds but for these rocket scientists it was an eternity, since a fatal (to the motor) aberration might occur in the next ¼ second.
SUN_8459And then silence.

For a moment Josh and Terry looked at each other then started screaming “YES!” and dancing through the mud and rock. That meant they could go ahead and build the actual competition motor for the Utah launch. These S&T rocket scientists could now add “chemist” to their resumes.

Epilogue: Rocket motors burn fast and hot, and remain too hot to touch for some time. During the cool-down wait we noticed Matt Fogle’s name written on the cylinder. Explained Terry “Matt is definitely the “Godfather” of this project. He was the one who first started researching all about making solid rocket fuel, and the motor designs are his designs. So Josh Lewis and I signed the case and did it for Matt, since he is one of our best friends and without him none of this would be possible.”

Now that’s classy.

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.
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.

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

Engineering Idol

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.
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.
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.
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.


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.
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!

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

The Best Birthday Present EVER!

And the story behind it…

Let us first introduce to you, Richard Dalton, shop and safety operations manager at S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center.

Richard has a slightly mellow personality, but he shoulders tremendous responsibility at the center. He teaches dozens of technical and safety classes, oversees OrgSync and all the sophisticated software needed to design student projects, buys (or steals) and maintains a barn full of lathes, mills, grinders, welders, and composite layup equipment, machines that well-meaning (but inexperienced) students seem to trash as fast as he can fix it.

Richard also teaches truck/trailer drivers’ education classes after normal(?) duty hours. It’s a wonder he hasn’t burst a blood vessel trying to show students how to back up a 28-foot trailer, or park a big dually pickup truck. Stressful at best…

He’s a master mechanic, superb machinist and even built his own home. A computer/IT wizard, YouTube aficionado, and has been deployed to Afganistan with the Army Reserve.

DSC_7810His office is his inner sanctum, his personal retreat where few are welcome. It’s home to several video monitors, his personal tool set, and the occasional canoe when things get too crowded in the shop. It’s even been known to house a few hundred plastic Easter eggs lovingly placed where it’ll take him months to find them.


DSC_3246Many months ago, Richard’s very expensive and custom-fitted office chair went missing. He was very “close” to that chair and distraught when it disappeared, as similar chairs just wouldn’t “fit.” There were rumors it rolled away DSC_6536 (1) on its own, to go “find itself” and travel the world. Sightings were reported all over the western U.S., often in the vicinity of traveling S&T design teams it was said.
But it never resurfaced.

Fast forward to Irvine, California with the Solar House Design Team and their Nest Home at the Solar Decathlon; high-energy house reassembly under strict time constraints. Richard absolutely WOWED the students with his skills, enthusiasm and experience, and with his birthday on the horizon the students were desperate to show their appreciation to “’Mater,” as he’s known on campus. What to do?

The house has to be furnished, right? What if, just IF, they could find the errant furniture, wouldn’t it be great to bring it “home”? If they COULD recover it, how could they possibly sneak it into the Nest Home as a proper surprise? What on-hand equipment could they use?

Well, there IS that big crane sitting right outside, and since Richard (that’s him on the left) was busy talking……….

And THAT is the story of the best birthday present EVER!

P.S. Too bad the crane operator wouldn’t haul him up about 100 ft. Stupid OSHA rules…..

Mining for Rockets. Or, 400mph Lawn Darts.

We’ve posted about the desert search for errant rockets, and finally we have closure.

The Miners, along with Harry Steel and Michel Fathallah from the University of Sydney, covered well over a square mile of scorching desert floor and ravines in search for rocket 28A. Two days of systematically covering the San Rafael desert, sometimes as late as dusk, did turn up five competitors’ rockets, but just a few paint scraps of S&T’s Hyperion. It was as if the missile had left earth for good.
Harry of the desertbetter
Facing a 1,300-mile trip back to Rolla, it was time to give up and head home. Harry and Michel only had to drive back to Las Vegas so Harry, a cross between Lawrence of Arabia and a gazelle, gave it one more try. Just “going for a walk,” as he put it.

The Miners’ caravan was nearly three hours east when they got the text; Harry thought he’d found Hyperion! No question in the group’s mind but they had to see for real, so it was an immediate U-turn back to Green River. A quick lunch/planning session and another 20 miles out into the scrub, far past the launch base camp and well into 4WD terrain.

They left the truck on a ridge and hiked another 600 yards south, through two dry creek beds to the GPS coordinates. Just yards from where they found paint-chip remnants was a little piece of aluminum tape sticking out of the sand, still attached to the base of the rocket.
The nine-foot-tall rocket sustainer burrowed into the sand like a 400 mph acupuncture needle; didn’t even disturb the surface, and it looked like it’d take an archeology major to recover it. Or a pair of shovels, which Jill Davis and Kyle Bruer had the foresight to borrow back in town.

The four engineers-to-be dug a trench sideways into the hillside, then turned to scooping out sand by hand to make sure they didn’t discard any critical payload or data components.
It didn’t take long to realize the nose cone stopped about 5 feet down, while the payload components were still moving very fast. The rocket motors, vacuum chamber, main parachute and assorted hardware were crushed into a mangled mess of steel, wire, circuits, batteries and plywood. The Aussie’s satellite? Fuggedaboutit. Nose cone? Shattered. Metal rocket tube? Mushroomed like a bullet hitting concrete. Composite tube? Telescoped into itself, then disintegrated.
They foursome sifted through everything, looking for critical data cards which could help the autopsy. Miraculously they found a nearly-intact video camera and recovered the SD card, and they hope someone on campus can recover the flight images.

Some three hours into the “mining” they hit bedrock and, not finding any more rocket shreds, called it a day. They cleaned up the site and buried the debris in the hole from whence it came. And then drove home to Rolla.

In a few weeks they’ll carefully to peel apart the mess to see why the second stage didn’t light.

Or, as everyone said at Saturday’s all-team picnic, “NEXT year!”

Launch the Rocket. Look for the Rocket.

Becomes kind of a monotonous cycle.
RecoverySUN_8314 - Version 2
Each launching salvo consists of two to five rockets lined up on the pad. There’s roughly a 10-minute gap between each vehicle blasting off and the next, an interval that assures everything has returned to ground and that spectators aren’t trying to follow two rockets at one time.

It also gives ground trackers the chance to triangulate the likely “landing” spot to make recovery operations easier.

“Easier” is a relative term. One launch vehicle drifted back under parachute to within 150 feet of the launch rail. Others were more than a mile away in this featureless terrain.

Should parachutes fail (and they do) at 10,000 feet or more, the rocket becomes “ballistic.” That means you hope to see it in time to step out of the way…