KU engineering students win the ‘pinnacle’ of aerospace design competitions; school tops all-time rankings for wins

photo by: Courtesy KU School of Engineering

A rendering shows the proposed design for the Skyblazer family of regional jets. The Skyblazer was designed by a team of KU students who won an international, first-place award for aeronautical design for its work on the jet, which is designed to be faster and produce a smaller carbon footprint than conventional jets of its size.

Nathan Wolf wouldn’t be the first engineering student who has had to explain to his parents how his semester blew up.

But no, this isn’t a story about how the dog ate his thermodynamics homework. This is about actually blowing stuff up. Wolf and a team of fellow students spent most of last semester designing a shoulder-fired missile while completing their studies at the University of Kansas’ School of Engineering.

“It is a lot of weird reactions from parents and families,” Wolf said of the interactions he gets when he tells people he’s working on a missile that is designed to destroy drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles. “They are like, ‘what are you doing blowing things up?'”

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Brennan Wheatley, Lendon Jackson and Krishna Sitaula are pictured in September 2021 with their presentation board for a new regional jet design called Skyblazer. The trio were part of a team of KU engineering students that won a top international award for their design of the concept regional jetliner.

Winning awards, actually.

A three-person team of students led by Wolf won third place this week in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics graduate team missile design contest.

Their winning missile is only a few inches long — meaning soldiers could carry a dozen of them in a backpack — travels 300 miles per hour for more than 3 miles and can reach heights of nearly 50,000 feet. But maybe coolest of all, it uses a shotgun shell to blow up a drone.

“We actually went to a shotgun range and tested some shells,” Wolf said. “It is a really fun thing to do in your senior year.”

But what if your engineering student comes home talking about a magic carpet? Surely — especially in Lawrence — that is a bad sign.

Not this time. It actually is better news than blowing things up. The magic carpet tale is design lingo used by a team of 10 KU students who designed a new family of regional, commercial jets. The “magic carpet,” as they called it, is a conveyor belt system in the cargo hold of the plane that efficiently moves luggage and cuts down on labor costs for an airline.

The Skyblazers, as they’ve named the jets, are designed to be 15% faster, produce a 15% reduction in airfares and create a 15% reduction in carbon footprint compared to traditional regional jets.

Numbers like those will win you first place in AIAA’s Graduate Team Aircraft Design Advanced Regional Jet competition. Yes, that’s a mouthful, but engineering professor and team adviser Ron Barrett-Gonzalez said there’s mainly one point you need to know.

“This is the pinnacle of aerospace design competitions around the world,” Barrett-Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t get any higher than this.”

Big for students

It also is the type of competition that draws a lot of interested observers — namely, some of the world’s largest aviation companies.

Barrett-Gonzalez tells a story about one of his former KU students who also was on a winning team. She ended up getting a tap on the shoulder and a new job.

“She personally was pulled out of a line engineering job by a top executive at Boeing because he had read the press release from AIAA about her win,” Barrett-Gonzalez said.

This year’s group of winners may get some extra recognition because they faced a challenge no previous teams had — designing during the COVID pandemic. KU classes were not held in person for most of the time period that the design work was done.

“Working through COVID and doing everything digital was the toughest part,” said Skyler Jacob, a member of the first-place jet design team. “One of the best ways to improve a design is to argue in person while you are all sitting around a board. When you are doing it digitally, it is a lot harder.”

But team leader Lendon Jackson said the challenges may have made the accomplishment all the more special.

“I think the best part about it is the team effort and knowing what we had to do to do this together,” he said.

Not everybody was together earlier this week, though. KU actually had four teams that won awards in the prestigious AIAA competition and a similar vertical flight competition. But only three of the teams showed up for an interview session with the Journal-World. One six-person team, which also designed a counter-drone missile, was entirely absent. But Barrett-Gonzalez said they had a good excuse.

“They all have jobs already,” he said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Nathan Wolf stands with a prototype of a missile that a KU Engineering design team created for an international competition. Wolf is pictured in September 2021 in one of the labs at the KU Engineering School.

Big for KU

The students aren’t the only ones who are hoping to benefit from the awards. KU’s engineering school and its aerospace engineering department will use the awards as a big recruitment tool when wooing future students. And the school knows that drill well.

Just like KU’s famed basketball team, when it comes to aeronautical design competitions, KU Engineering has a target on its back. Maybe that’s not the best analogy for a competition that designs missiles, but the point is KU is a consistent winner year after year.

Take any tour of the department, and you are likely to see a chart showing the cumulative number of student design awards in the AIAA aerospace competition since 1970. KU is at the top of the list, with nearly 100 awards, while its closest competitors are still in the 60s and 70s. KU is well ahead of big-name schools such as the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, MIT and several international institutions.

“It is extremely important to our institution as a whole,” Barrett-Gonzalez said. “It lets people in decision-making positions know that we are contributing to the industries that are really important to the state’s economy.”

Except, sometimes those decision-makers still don’t make the connection. It is a point of frustration for Barrett-Gonzalez that at times state lawmakers question some of the investments the state makes in aerospace engineering schools because it is not uncommon for those graduates to move away and work for companies in other parts of the country.

But looking at it simply in that light doesn’t do justice to the big picture in Kansas, Barrett-Gonzalez argues. He used the Skyblazer project as an example. It is uncertain whether the Skyblazer design that the KU team developed ever will get built. But it is very likely that engineering companies like Boeing are going to be interested in acquiring the talent that designed it. That talent then likely will design some other version of a new aircraft that actually will get built. That means big dollars and high-paying design jobs for hundreds.

Yes, in the current environment, a lot of that design work for such a project likely is to be done somewhere other than Kansas. But the big economic impact of the aviation industry still comes from selling planes. The Skyblazer, for instance, is estimated to have a construction cost of $55 million for a single 75-passenger jet. Such a build can involve thousands of workers. And, guess where that work may occur?

“We have to continue to stress that when we graduate a graduate and they design a product in Seattle, it still gets built primarily in Kansas,” Barrett-Gonzalez said. “Kansas is still really well positioned to build aircraft.”

There’s nothing saying that Kansas can’t also become a design hub for the aviation industry, but even if it does not, it seemingly is beneficial for Kansas to have leaders in the industry who come from KU as a way to help ensure that Kansas’ advantages in building aircraft remain top of mind with aviation leaders.

Barrett-Gonzalez said KU has an impressive list of alumni who are high-level executives in the aviation industry.

“And they have been very generous to us,” he said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Mason Denneler shows a scale model of a helicopter-like device, which when at its full size can deliver 100 pounds of cargo to hard to reach places. Denneler and team of KU students developed the device as part of an international vertical flight competition. Denneler is picture in September 2021 in one of the labs at the KU Engineering School.

Big for aviation

Thinking about how Kansas can benefit from future aviation success is all well and good, but let’s be honest, there are more exciting thoughts. Like going fast. Really fast.

In a room full of award-winning aeronautical engineers of the future, the question comes up about whether airplanes are going to go faster in the future. Most definitely.

Maybe that seems like a no-duh answer, but it certainly hasn’t been a given. Despite an age of great technological advancements like a thousand different ways to post a stream-of-consciousness thought to the internet, air travel actually has become slower in some regards. For generations, humans continued to find faster ways to cross the Atlantic, for instance. But that advancement reached its peak with the Concorde and supersonic flight.

When the Concorde stopped flying in 2003, a trip across the Atlantic became slower than it was decades before. Granted, the price of a Concorde ticket probably meant most people never experienced the speed to begin with, but even more ordinary planes have slowed down. Lots of commercial airliners reportedly fly about 45 knots slower than they did back in the 1960s. That’s mainly because of fuel economy reasons and a lack of advancements aimed at tackling that issue.

But this group of engineers is predicting that won’t be the case in the future. The challenges of climate change — commercial aviation has a large carbon footprint — will demand that the industry come up with new technological advancements. They envision more point-to-point travel, where people won’t necessarily be landing at an airport but rather much closer to their actual destinations. That could help with climate change, as such travel theoretically would reduce the number of vehicles on the roads.

“Electrical propulsion, entirely new propulsion systems. We are trying to make an airplane as environmentally friendly as possible,” said Krishna Sitaula, who came from Nepal to study aeronautics at KU and was part of the winning Skyblazer jet team. “This is kind of a renaissance phase for aerospace.”

And, yes, a phase of faster travel. Some of the environmental improvements actually result in more speed, not less. The Skyblazer project, for instance, used a different wing design and different jet engine placement to significantly reduce the amount of space needed for takeoff. That not only saves fuel, but it makes trips faster.

That’s just one example, but these student engineers are betting the industry will develop many more. At that point, think of a four- to five-hour transatlantic flight instead of 12 to 18 hours. If those predictions bear fruit, the impact won’t just be measured in time. It will produce a more meaningful change than that, which really has these rising stars excited.

“The whole world,” Jacob said, “will be interconnected so much more easily.”

Winning projects

• Advanced regional jet: first place in AIAA graduate team contest. A team of 10 KU students designed a pair of regional jets that are projected to be faster and have lower operating costs and significantly smaller carbon footprints than existing regional jet aircraft. Winning team members were: Lendon Jackson, Bhawantha Nilaweera; Raghav Parikh; Krishna Sitaula; Renaldo Rivera; Olivia Scharf; Matthew Grebe; Skyler Jacob; Brennan Wheatley; Ethan Seiler.

• Missile design: second place in AIAA graduate team contest. A team of six KU students designed a missile intended to take a down a drone. In addition to being able to detonate an explosive, the missile also can ensnare a drone, forcing it to the ground largely intact, which would allow the military to examine it and possibly determine more about the enemy. Winning team members were: Jack Barkei; Christopher Eavenson; Brian Von Holtz; Bobby Bowes; Samantha Friess; Alex Welicky.

• Missile design: third place in AIAA graduate team contest. A team of three KU students developed a “Valkyrie” missile, a small device that can travel 300 miles an hour to catch a drone and use a shotgun shell to destroy it. Winning team members were: Nathan Wolf; Joe Coldiron; Austin Dooley.

• Unmanned quadcopter: first in the undergraduate, new entrant competition of the Vertical Flight Society competition. A team of three KU students designed an unmanned aerial vehicle that can carry about 100 pounds and land in a typical residential yard. While it might be useful for companies like Amazon, team members were touting its ability to deliver emergency supplies quickly to disaster areas that may be too littered or dangerous for traditional helicopters or aircraft. Winning team members were: Mason Denneler; Zack Schwab; Micaela Crispin.


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