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Innovate is what we engineers do: The A&A capstones pivot

Amy Sprague
May 29, 2020

We all feel that this is quite the year. And one of the many things that have had to be adjusted this year due to the coronavirus pandemic is our cornerstone capstone teams. A&A teams have worked to reimagine the projects to produce deliverables that would be possible with the closure of key UW facilities and social distancing.

We spoke with Blake Winner from the Vulcan team, Reuel Abad from the Applewhite team, and Joseph DePalma from the SARP team to learn about how their capstone teams pivoted to produce useful products and experiences for their teams and sponsors.


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A physical test of a boom mocked up by A&A student Blake Winner at his home.

Vulcan was founded in 1986 by Paul and Jody Allen to work toward conservation and economic development. Vulcan engaged A&A’s capstone team to advance a drone used to detect wildlife poachers in Africa.

A&A: So, Blake, what was the original plan for this team?

Blake: Vulcan’s drone can currently take flight for about four-and-a-half hours. Our task was to create and test hardware in the wind tunnel, modify an airframe to create a prototype, and make adjustments and test the prototype in the field to ultimately enable longer flight times.

A&A: What is the team’s new focus?

Blake: Professors Livne and Morgansen suggested we learn more about the entire design of the drone to improve efficiencies holistically and use mathematical modelling as a tool to get there. We thought we would also look at different mission modeling to see what modifications we could suggest related to different cruising altitudes or speeds than how the conservation drones currently fly.

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CFD image of a velocity contour of the vertical take-off and landing boom. 

A&A: How are you now carrying out the project?

Blake: The original plan involved extensive wind tunnel testing, which we were all looking forward to. But instead of testing in the wind tunnel, we shifted to focusing on aspects that could be explored well through computational fluid dynamics (CFD), such as reducing drag to increase efficiency and flight time.

Basically, we are using this computer method to simulate the airflow and the drag on the various parts of the drone, including the fuselage. There is established analytical theory for calculating the drag on wings and tail sections, but we are trailblazing a bit to achieve an accurate view of drag on the fuselage.

We’re doing a lot of translating of parts at home into Computer Aided Design (CAD) software including SOLIDWORKS. One team member is making a fuselage model and another precisely measured one of the propellers to make CAD models of the vertical take-off system. So, I think we will get workable results using the CAD model to run CFD instead of from the wind tunnel.

I’m also doing some physical testing of the booms at home, seeing if we can reduce the weight of the booms while maintaining physical integrity. We didn’t think we would be improvising like this, but we’re making it work.

Applewhite Aero

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A CAD rendering developed by the Applewhite Aero capstone team 

Applewhite Aero creates unmanned vehicles for land, sea and air. Applewhite engaged their A&A capstone team to advance the design of a low-cost baton for aerial delivery of emergency supplies as well as search and rescue.

A&A: Reuel, what were you expecting to do for this capstone at the beginning of the project?

Reuel: Well, we were expecting to provide a completed physical product that would be fully operational and ready for mass production. This would have required extensive testing, which we are unable to do without access to key facilities.

A&A: So what is the plan now?

Reuel: We have limited our scope to focus on only one concept of operation, that is, executing a controlled descent. Also, we will be moving toward a more detailed design using CAD through SOLIDWORKS with additional documentation to ease the transition of future manufacturing and application. The end goal is for the Applewhite team to press PRINT on a 3D printer and follow our documentation for the molding process, assembly, programming and operation.

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The real-life assembly protoype assembled in Reuel Abad's home from the CAD rendering above left.

A&A: How have you all been figuring this out from your homes?

Reuel: To make sure all of the parts have been dimensioned correctly, I am 3D printing a prototype of the Baton structure at home and assembling the electronics to make sure that all of the parts fit and that they mechanically function the way they were intended.

In terms of programming, our controls group is theorizing the tuning as well as optimizing the trajectory that the Baton should take during its controlled rapid descent when ejected from an aircraft inflight. While we have had to narrow our focus to only one concept of operation, we think the end product will be useful and it has been a great learning experience thus far.


SARP's Joseph DePalma and Cody Olson demonstrate the pivoting of the SARP capstone and the development of the composite couplers in particular.

The Society for Advanced Rocket Propulsion (SARP) is an A&A institution. 2020 was going to be the year the SARP defended its top award at the Spaceport America Cup, the world’s most prestigious collegiate rocketry competition, usually held every summer in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

A&A: We need to start off by saying that the loss of the Spaceport America Cup this year is hitting everyone pretty hard, so we can’t imagine the disappointment you all feel as part of the team. 

Joseph: Yes, thank you. It is a huge loss for everyone. At this point, we couldn’t advance anything else of our current rocket design without testing, so we decided to focus our energies on placing next year’s team in a much stronger position for not just the Spaceport America Cup, but also for other competitions that we haven’t been able to qualify for previously. 

A&A: That seems like a great use of your hard work and research. Could you tell us what you are working on?

Joseph: We have started R&D for several new features! We are thinking of adding solid rocket boosters to enhance performance. We are looking into ablative heat transfer modelling to help us optimize how much protective material we need to line the combustion chamber, preventing the walls of the chamber from melting and saving weight. We are also looking into the further use of composites to replace several metal components, continuing to reduce the weight of the rocket. In particular, we are looking at composite couplers between airframes.

We are also looking into Area Rule Fin Can. Our fins were already well thought out as our manufacturing method from last year was recommended to all competitors of this year’s Spaceport America. But the advances we are looking into will try and reduce the drag of the rocket by using the Whitcomb Transonic Area Rule, which states that in transonic flow, there is an observed reduction in drag by keeping the cross-sectional area of the vehicle constant.   

A new powderless ejection system will help us, once we get to testing again, test our Recovery system much more easily and frequently without the hassle of black powder clean-ups between each test. We are also striving to get closer to industry standards with a Real Time Operating System on our Avionics controllers, helping reduce power consumption and improve actuation timings for an increasingly complex system.  And, as an added bonus, we are planning to add video streaming to our rocket launches!

A&A: All of these things sound pretty exciting! We look forward to seeing this research lead SARP toward even greater heights and competitive advantages!