Design, Build, Test, Fly

Senior design project gives students a look at real-world design process

Getting a new airplane, rocket or satellite from the drawing board into the air is what it's all about for the engineers who design them.

It's a more complicated process than most aerospace engineering students realize, said John Valasek, an associate professor in Texas A&M's Department of Aerospace Engineering.

That's where the yearlong senior design project - AERO 401 - comes in. It's about as close to the real thing as a student can get, and it's intended to give them a chance to experience first-hand the complexity of designing, building, testing and flying a new airplane, rocket or satellite.

Just like in the real world, the project begins with a request for proposals (RFP). A recent RFP for the airplane class option called for designs for a Super Short Take-Off and Landing (SSTOL) Carrier On-Board Delivery (COD) Aircraft. The objective was to design a SSTOL transport aircraft that could carry cargo or passengers to and from the center of cities and perform carrier on-board delivery chores for the navy.

Students in the design class are divided into individual teams, each of which forms an aerospace corporation to design, build, test and fly an aircraft, rotorcraft, spacecraft or satellite that meets the requirements of the RFP. The course also exposes the students to the impact of factors like how safety, regulations, potential liability, social and professional responsibility, acquisition, marketing, cost, environmental concerns, manufacturing, engineering and business infrastructures affect aircraft design.

A crucial part of the process is the critical design review, which takes place about three months into the design process. During the review, representatives of aerospace companies evaluate each team's design and provide feedback, which is incorporated into the still-evolving designs.

Representatives from the Aerospace Corporation, Bell Helicopter Textron, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA Johnson Space Center, Orbital Science and Raytheon are some of the companies represented to review each team's project and provide feedback.

The teams begin by producing a computer design, which is used to build a model that is tested in Texas A&M's low-speed wind tunnel. Following that testing, each team builds a flying model. For the aircraft, each model's flight characteristics also are programmed into the aerospace engineering department's flight simulator, so the students can see from the inside how their design would handle in the air.

Then it's flight time for the models, with varying success. But just going through the process of designing, building, testing and finally flying their own aircraft, rocket or satellite gives students valuable exposure to the design process, Valasek said.

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Check out some Texas A&M Aerospace Engineering students in action.

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