WashU team’s ‘The Wrighton Flyer’ drone places high in first competition

Months of work designing and building six different prototypes of an unmanned aircraft paid off for a team of 16 Engineering undergraduate students when their aircraft ranked in the top 10 percent at an international collegiate competition.

The Washington University Design/Build/Fly team competed with 137 other teams from around the world in the AIAA Design/Build/Fly competition April 20-23 in Tuscon, Ariz. After three missions, each with increasing difficulty, the WashU team ranked 12th overall and became the top-ranked collegiate aerospace design team in the Midwest.

The objective was to design, build and fly a tube-launched, electric, remote-controlled unmanned air vehicle (UAV) that had to fit inside the launch tube while minimizing weight, maximizing speed, range, endurance and payload capacity. The drone, named "The Wrighton Flyer," was built with plywood, nylon fabric, scrap steel and aluminum, and carbon fiber support structure.

While the first mission did not include a payload, the second required the UAV to carry three regulation hockey pucks, which weigh between 5.5 and 6 ounces each. The third mission required the UAV to carry enough hockey pucks to increase the team's overall score. The WashU team held at three pucks.

"We determined we could maximize our score by going for a low-cost airplane that carried a few pucks rather than a larger plane that carried more," said Peter Sharpe, the team's president and a junior majoring in mechanical engineering with minors in aerospace engineering, robotics and mechatronics. "This is a truly exceptional result for a first-year, undergraduate-led team with no corporate sponsors – we're totally stunned that it went as well as it did."

The WashU Design/Build/Fly team, which has nearly 40 students total, gathered funding throughout the year from Student Union (SU), the Engineering Project Review Board and Engineering Student Services. The team used about half of that money to build the aircraft, with the remainder covering travel to the competition.

When folded, the WashU aircraft is slightly longer than a submarine sandwich, prompting the team to initially refer to it as the "$500 footlong," and is about 4 inches in diameter. The rules required that the aircraft fit entirely within the tube then be released from the tube ready to fly with no tools — all of the plane's parts had to lock into place without much maneuvering.

"In a real-life scenario, you'd hit a button, and the plane would pop out," Sharpe said. "Here, we could move the components, and they would lock into place, but that was a very difficult part of the competition."

The rules called for the plane to be hand-launched, Sharpe said, while the pilot manned the remote controls.

"The idea was to simulate a soldier in the field who could launch a plane directly from the tube without any aircraft training," Sharpe said.

Sharpe was the launcher, while Kevin Hainline, a master's student in aerospace engineering and an engineer at The Boeing Co., was the pilot and team adviser. Swami Karunamoorthy, professor of the practice in mechanical engineering, was the team's faculty adviser.

Sharpe said the team is looking forward to even more progress in 2017-2018, when Cameron Bard, who is earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in aerospace engineering, will serve as president. The team is seeking additional funding to remain competitive in the coming years.

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 140 full-time faculty, 1,387 undergraduate students, 1,448 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society's greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.