LAWRENCE — A military aircraft mounted with a massive, four-megawatt laser designed to sense an incoming missile and shoot it down in flight might sound like a creation in a science fiction novel. But eight University of Kansas School of Engineering students crunched the numbers, ran the test and created a real-world design for this in-flight missile defense system that earned them first place in a prestigious international competition.
Two graduate and six undergraduate aerospace engineering students won first place in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Foundation’s 2013 Graduate Team Aircraft Design Competition. The guidelines required teams to design a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial system, carrying a direct energy laser weapon for use in missile defense.
Samantha Schueler, team captain and second-year aerospace engineering graduate student from Lawrence, said the project forced the team to utilize all its engineering skills and expand their capabilities.
“The concepts behind this design are way out there,” Schueler said. “We examined a lot of crazy ideas to figure out how to work with the laser and ran through a lot of different concepts in an effort to eliminate designs that were not feasible. It was a lot of trial and error, and in the end, we settled on a design that we thought would work.”
Team members worked on the project as part of an advanced level aerospace design course. They started the semester with eight design concepts and quickly whittled that to three. In the final weeks before the competition deadline, they settled on a design they thought could succeed, but with less than a month left, they realized it was flawed.
“The aircraft couldn’t support the weight of the laser system. The wings would either bend or rip off. It just wasn’t going to work,” Schueler said.
So the team went back to the drawing board to find a successful design that could meet the competition requirements.
“We just used numbers and math any time we could and just tried to eliminate everything we knew that wouldn’t work,” said team member Amir Bachelani, a May 2013 aerospace engineering graduate and first-year graduate student from Olathe. “We had so many problems with this airplane. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – except for how frustrating it is during the process — but it made us work together as one team, and making mistakes and learning from them makes you a better engineer in the long run.”
Earlier this fall, a team from KU placed second in AIAA’s Undergraduate Team Space Transportation Design Competition. This year’s success continues a long-running tradition of excellence for KU in AIAA student design competitions. KU is among the top institutions in the world in winning and placing in AIAA student design competitions. This also marks the second straight year Schueler earned top recognition for her work. She won first place in AIAA’s 2012 Individual Aircraft Design Competition.
“It’s a great feeling to accomplish this for a second time,” Schueler said. “Both years were extremely challenging, but being part of the team competition this year was tougher, because there’s so much more to juggle. You’re relying on so many more people, and you’re expected to present so much more in your design because you have so much more manpower.”
The fact that the team included several undergraduates didn’t go unnoticed.
“To achieve this level of success in a graduate-level competition with a team comprised primarily of undergraduates is a validation of the outstanding education aerospace students receive at KU,” said Z.J. Wang, Spahr Professor of and chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering. “It’s an honor and a thrill to work with outstanding students and faculty who continue to reach such a high level of success on an international level.”
The team’s faculty adviser is Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of aerospace engineering.
Team members: Amir Bachelani, May 2013 graduate, current graduate student, Olathe; Julian Bettoni, May 2013 graduate, San Jose, Costa Rica, and Overland Park; Stuart Hunsinger, May 2013 graduate, Olathe; Kirill Nadtochiy, May 2013 graduate, Overland Park; Graham Ray, May 2013 graduate, Hutchinson; Trevor Schlieper, graduate student, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Samantha Schueler, May 2012 graduate, current graduate student, Lawrence; Davis Woodward, May 2013 graduate, Olathe.