Toy Story

How tossing paper airplanes guided the career of an aerospace engineer.

Ken Blackburn designs small, unmanned research craft for the military and small, unmanned paper airplanes for everybody. (LAUREN BLACKBURN)
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In the end, Blackburn’s paper airplanes helped him land his current job at Jacobs Engineering. He came across an online job posting for an engineer with miniature-airplane credentials. “It combined my two passions in life—aeronautical engineering and small aircraft—and I saw an opportunity to boost my résumé with my paper airplane experience,” Blackburn says.

Two weeks after an interview at Jacobs, he was working at Eglin. “For me, just as a hobby, I’ve tried to find every technical paper I can find to research small and very slow flying aircraft. That turned out to be the very knowledge I needed for my current job, and the people at Jacobs recognized it.”

By tomorrow’s UAV standards, the Dominator with its 12-foot wings and even the one-pound BATCAM are archaically oversized. Half-pound micro-vehicles are already flying. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding research on airfoils with radically better lift-to-drag characteristics and powerfully efficient propulsion systems, all on an infinitesimal scale. Projects include insect-size flying robots fabricated at the University of California at Berkeley, and a nano-scale air vehicle at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater that weighs less than 10 grams and is only three inches long. Compared to such nanotechnology, paper airplanes are clunky contraptions.

“In the end, you do have to obey the laws of physics,” Blackburn says, though he concedes that “there comes a time when engineering for these vehicles does start to lose basic aerodynamic principles, but that size is really, really small, when your wing is on the scale of molecules.”

Blackburn’s work and the more immediate goals of engineers at the Munitions Directorate are focused on airplanes bigger than a molecule but small enough to require basic research into their handling qualities and components. To be effective, a small air vehicle must be compact enough—and its wings large enough—to make slow-speed hand-launching possible for a soldier who probably has not studied biomechanics and shot-put techniques, as Blackburn did to maximize his Guinness airplane launches. The quest for the next-generation mini-UAV has formed another work-and-play connection at Jacobs Engineering: “Almost everyone in our group flies radio-controlled airplanes,” says Blackburn. He calls the technologies in today’s radio-controlled toys “remarkable” and adds, “Our job is to make sure we’re not missing something” in RC components that could be used for military UAVs.

Blackburn’s experience with toy airplanes, both plastic and paper, has taught him a final lesson: “It becomes progressively more difficult to make a useful airplane as it gets smaller.” So attention, fourth-grade teachers: Don’t just confiscate the paper glider that smacks into the blackboard while your back is turned. Encourage the designer. He or she may be the one to solve tomorrow’s problems in low-speed, lightweight, unmanned flight.

Download your own paper airplane: Click here for a PDF file and folding instructions (and don't forget to print both sides).

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