Inexperience Wanted

Student engineers answer NASA’s call to design the airplane of 2058.

The University of Miami’s QUEIA, for Quiet Ultra-Efficient Integrated Aircraft, has engines embedded in the top part of the trailing edge to increase lift. The high lift-to-drag ratio results in a lower stall speed, which translates to a take-off distance of only 1,579 feet, about a sixth that of the new Boeing 787. (QUEIA Team)

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Among the college entries, an eight-person team from Georgia Tech won in the graduate student category for their biplane of the future. A high-lift, low-drag, straight-wing design, it carries large rotors at the wingtips that spin from the force of air sweeping off the end of the wing—energy normally wasted, but, in this concept, fed back to the system.

“Aviation needs a revolution in vehicle design,” says Georgia Tech team member Kemp Kernstein. “This aircraft attempts to regain many aspects of lost energy in flight, use more efficient systems, operate at more efficient power settings, all while keeping the noise as low as possible.”

A six-person team from Virginia Tech, all sophomores, won in the undergraduate slot with a design called STINGRAE, for Short Take-off Integrated Nacelle-less Geometry for Reduction of Acoustics and Emissions. The airplane’s four engines are enclosed in a quasi-blended wing body to increase lift and reduce drag. And because jet engines operate most efficiently at maximum thrust, says team member Stephen Pace, pilots would use all four engines on takeoff. Then, during cruise, they’d power off two of them while operating the other two at max throttle.

“The problems facing our nation and planet regarding energy and environmental sustainability are immense,” says Pace. “The absolute most important performance advantage of our design is lower specific fuel consumption. [We’re] proud to be acknowledged by NASA for contributing to the solution.”

A University of Miami team placed second in the undergrad category with a 250-passenger, blended wing body called QUEIA, for Quiet Ultra-Efficient Integrated Aircraft. “We decided that we could take the flying wing design to the next level,” says team member Joseph Dussling. A key feature is the Co-Flow Jet concept, he says, with engines embedded in the top part of the trailing edge to increase lift. The team’s computational fluid dynamics calculations show that QUEIA’s lift-to-drag ratio would virtually double that of a Boeing 737 or even the new 787.

Three members of the design team will return to Miami this fall for their senior year. “The team is actually very excited about the future of QUEIA,” says Dussling. They’ve received funding for the continued development of their design, and the work they’ve done thus far has provided a huge head start, which they’ll build upon for their senior design project.

“QUEIA and the Boeing 737-800 have comparable maximum payloads,” he says. “QUEIA, however, uses about half of the fuel load while having a range 2,000 nautical miles superior to the 737-800. This is incredibly desirable as the cost of oil continues to rise.”

Even one of the more conventional designs, submitted by eight sophomores from Ohio State University, turned ordinary notions of airliners upside-down. Called PUMA (no acronym, just a big cat with a big leap), their 125-passenger short-take-off-and-landing airplane carries its two General Electric CF34-10 turbofans mounted above the wing as a hedge against ingesting foreign objects. And the aircraft is super light due to the use of composites such as carbon/epoxy compounds and Weldalite 049, a lithium-aluminum alloy, which allows it to use short runways.

“The airline industry is primed for another revolution as consumers demand better fuel economy, greater access to smaller airports, and reduced environmental impact,” says team member Kevin Disotell. “Our team came to see that all of these challenges are fundamentally connected to one another.” Disotell says the entire team entered the competition having completed only an introductory aerospace engineering course. They still placed third. “The learning curve for fundamental design concepts was certainly steep with our inexperience,” he says, “but we came to understand that the design process is a science in itself. Design is just like playing an instrument—one only gets better at it through practice and iteration.”

It can also have financial rewards. The first place teams in the NASA college contest divvied up $5,000 each; second and third place teams won $3,000 and $2,000 respectively. International students will receive engraved plaques. And six U.S. students received a 10-week paid summer internship at NASA’s Ames, Dryden, Glenn, or Langley Research Centers. Depending on the center and its regional cost of living, the internships were valued between $6,500 and $8,500, a taste of the income students can expect from a career in aerospace engineering.

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