Making Things Fly – AeroMIT’s Modus Operandi
Everyone has had a childhood fantasy wherein they flew across the galaxy in a spaceship of their own, visiting different planets and fighting off alien hordes. For some, it remained a fantasy, buried in the midst of the nostalgic memories of growing up. For others it lay dormant in the consciousness, waiting to take form in some other way. Manipal awakened these hidden passions and moulded them into a few of the most successful Aerospace student projects which have seen their share of success over the years. One receiving accolades around the globe for its achievements and two others still in the nascent stages showing tremendous potential, the stage is set for Manipal to reach out for the stars.
AeroMIT is one student project that everyone in Manipal knows about. Whether you fancy a jog in the cricket ground early in the morning or you walk into an inauguration of a fest, this team of spirited individuals is there employing their unique skill-sets in the most interesting ways possible.
As Manipal University’s official team for the SAE AeroDesign competition where participants have to design an aircraft to meet specific mission requirements, they have participated in numerous competitions across the globe bringing laurels to the college with their innovative and well-engineered planes. With several national and international awards in its kitty including an Overall World Rank of 5 in SAE AeroDesign East 2016, a World Rank of 4 in SAE Aerodesign West 2017 competitions and NASA’s Systems Engineering award 3 times in a row now, AeroMIT has been one of the most active and successful student projects of Manipal. The most recent competition saw the team going to Texas, US where the team took part in the micro-class.
The Micro-class requires the team to design and build a plane that compromises between two conflicting requirements. It has to have the least empty weight with the ability to carry the most amount of dead weight. Apart from this there is a specific scoring formula that rates the planes. To maximize the score the planes have to be detached and fitted into a cylinder of diametrical dimension of 6 inches and the lowest length possible.
“There are 3 classes in the competition,” says Arjit Seth, the Aerodynamics head of AeroMIT. “Regular, Advanced and the Micro classes. Micro is designed specifically for teams from abroad as transporting bigger planes would be expensive and taxing. Apart from that the micro class is most suited for us as it provides the most engineering challenges. We built a plane that carried 3 times its own empty weight. That’s quite a significant payload fraction.”
AeroMIT’s designs were appreciated widely in the competition with a unique wing made out of parachute fabric that compressed from a length of 1 metre to about 12 inches. The modulo detachable plane was made to fit into a cylinder of 16 inches length that eventually made them one of the top 5 teams in the world at the competition.
“There’s a lot going into making the plane,” says Udayan Shloke, the team’s leader. “We iterated through at least 10 different materials and designs last season.” To give a consistent performance the plane has to be as steady as possible. Unbalanced moments, wobbling of the plane can put the team at a disadvantage. The results that the team gets during their testing sessions should be recreated at the competition as well. This demands a structurally sound, aerodynamically stable aircraft.
Apart from the Propulsion and Radio Control features of the aircraft, the team has been focusing on a field of research called Advanced Drone Research. “With drones gaining popularity like anything lately, ADR was the obvious way to go,” says Arunabh Bhattacharya, the former Electronics head talking about a relatively new idea the team has being playing with. With the preliminary Autonomous Flight testing that the team has been doing with completely automated flights from the cricket ground to KC and then IC, it has been quite a success. “We’re looking to expand the ranges to about 2 – 5 km. Challenges we might encounter aside from the physical distance include relaying of telemetric data and the video feed. We will require multiple radio systems on board. It is all an exciting new prospect and there’s so much to learn.”
The competitions are the most exciting time for the team. “It is insane fun, at the competition it’s the test pilot in you vs the competitor in you. Travelling together. Tensions running high. Making last minute compromises. The rush of adrenaline. The hiccups. The innovative designs of other teams. Meeting other aeromodelling enthusiasts. The different rounds. That’s what tests you as a team. Flying is what we do. If you want us, we could probably make a pizza box fly as well,” says Bhattacharya.
What makes AeroMIT so unique is the sheer number of different projects they involve themselves in. With expertise in aerial photography the drones are used during inaugurations of fests, First Person View that other student projects use for their qualifying videos allows the team to explore the possibilities of their aircrafts without restraint.
“Even as experienced aeromodellers, we kept learning new things. Who would have thought we would fly blind on a night to do the inaugural video of TechTatva ’15 with 1st years lighting up their phones in the shape of the logo? Or go against all advice and lift up banners in the constrained spaces of the library auditorium. The flight sessions where you pretty much get into dog-fights with birds are the best! The sheer amount of knowledge that you stand to gain with this project is immense,” opines Bhattacharya speaking about the team’s non-technical activities.
With the autonomous vehicle, solar powered plane, Advanced Drone Research and an assortment of other ambitious projects on their bucket list, AeroMIT’s next generation of aeromodellers are set to be inducted into the team soon. “Recruiting first years is a very important task,” says Shloke. “They’re the ones who will be taking the team forward. We’re looking forward to a nice turnout and recruit a good bunch of people. Let’s hope for the best.”