Last summer, the aerospace engineering (AerE) department announced plans for Make to Innovate (M:2:I) – a new program to engage students in hands-on projects. Over the past year, the program has seen students flood in and new projects emerge, demonstrating that M:2:I has staying power.
Getting the program up and running
When M:2:I was established, students were a bit hesitant. The program replaced Open Lab, which also gave students practical experience but did not incorporate the faculty involvement and credit requirement of M:2:I. As a result, projects were often left unfinished. That’s when leaders in AerE decided a new approach could make a difference.
“Last year, we had a vision of what this program would be, and this year we have delivered on that vision,” explains Richard Wlezien, professor and Vance and Arlene Coffman Endowed Department Chair in Aerospace Engineering. “Our goal is to get 50 percent of our 600 students participating. We currently have about 100 students and are a third of the way to our goal.”
Wlezien says M:2:I sets Iowa State apart from the other schools because many don’t offer the same level of hands-on experience. Even NASA’s former chief technologist, Bobby Braun, has observed Iowa State’s efforts, noting the university is building an impressive program at a time when most schools are getting rid of their practical application programs.
“In aerospace, we are always operating on the ragged edge of success—sometimes things work and sometimes they fail,” Wlezien says. “We want to give our students the experience of coming up with an idea, testing it, and having it not work so they can learn how to bounce back and come up with alternatives.”
As is the case with establishing any new program, M:2:I faced some initial challenges, but each has been addressed and resolved thanks to the work of program leaders Matthew Nelson, AerE engineering designer, and Jim Benson, AerE teaching laboratory associate.
“We had some growing pains and quickly had to learn how to balance students’ access to labs, delegating lab space, and funding,” explains Nelson.
Enthusiasm among students has driven the program past any temporary shortcomings toward success, with many working diligently day in and day out to reach their project goals.
“We have been impressed by the dedication of the teams,” Nelson says. “They are managing the work, meeting deadlines, doing well at competitions, and all but two have come in under budget, which is always impressive.”
Student commitment is equally matched by advisors and leaders within the program. Nelson and Benson can often be found in the Howe Hall labs seven days a week, assisting and mentoring the young engineers. Despite the large time commitment, they’ve found their involvement in M:2:I to be nothing short of enjoyable.
“Working with the students has been a great experience. I learn something from them on a daily basis,” Nelson explains.
One of M:2:I’s original programs, The High Altitude Balloon Experiments in Technology (HABET), uses high altitude balloons to bring payloads, or carrying capacities of an aircraft, to near space conditions at altitudes above 100,000 feet.
“Below 40,000 feet is commercial airspace, and altitudes up to 80,000 feet is military airspace, so we’re flying within the atmosphere layer called the stratosphere which extends to 164,000 feet,” explains Christine Jensen, AerE senior and HABET president.
This year, the team built its first zero-pressure balloon, which is a student built polyethylene balloon filled with helium. As the balloon rises, the gas bubble expands, causing excess gas to be pushed out through a vent at the bottom, stopping the ascent, and allowing the balloon to hover at a constant altitude. The team launched the balloon in mid-June, but the balloon only made it to 28,000 feet, due to very small holes caused by the heat sealer at the seams, before descending back to the ground.
The team also participates in several outreach events with local elementary and middle schools. Past events included having students build payloads that included pressure and temperature sensors, and then taking students on-site for the launch and recovery processes.
Although HABET was established before M:2:I, the program has seen incredible changes and benefits as M:2:I progresses.
“M:2:I brings together a wide variety of students,” Jensen says. “The collaboration seen amongst students from seniors to freshmen is really great and helps freshmen learn from their leaders how to be leaders themselves.”
HABET hopes to expand its reach by developing a telemetry system to get real-time results from the balloon. The team will also be looking into controlled landing features to improve the recovery process since more often than not balloons land in inconvenient places such as trees, ponds, or riverbeds.
This fall, the team will be launching its own version of Pixar’s “Up” house
Aiming above and beyond
Exploring even higher, CySAT has been utilizing a grant from NASA to build Iowa State’s first satellite. The team’s design follows the CubeSat design specifications of a 10 cm cube weighing 1 kilogram.
“Using these specifications allows us to develop and have access to standardized equipment, so we can develop a satellite at the low cost of $42,000 to $50,000 compared to the several million it usually takes,” says Christopher Reis, senior in electrical engineering and CySAT leader.
The group is working with Softronics, Ltd., of Marion, Iowa, to test a new radio device being developed by the company. Once the students integrate the payload from Softronics, the cube will be launched into space. Orbiting the earth, the cube will transmit data to a ground station developed by the CySAT team.
The satellite will record radio power at eight frequencies across the globe from devices such as TVs, radios, and computers. The information can then be used to create a map of the world, indicating the different intensities of radio emissions worldwide. The team anticipates developed countries, such as the U.S., will have higher usage than underdeveloped countries.
“Since we have a good idea of what we will be expecting for data, we’re using this opportunity to demonstrate that ISU has the expertise to produce and launch a satellite,” Reis says.
“When ISGC moved to the University of Northern Iowa, CySAT really didn’t have a home until M:2:I. The program has provided us funding, lab space, and support,” explains Reis.
He adds the design reviews and expert advice from M:2:I have been influential, helping the team shape its project.
A satellite launch is planned within the next year. Following that mission, the group will look at additional missions to push the envelope of satellite construction and possibly even expand its reach to NASA.
Back down in the earth’s atmosphere, CyDrone’s X-3 will soon be zooming through the skies. CyDrone began as a student experiment to build an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) using only off-the-shelf parts. Beginning the summer before his sophomore year, Adam Kaplan, AerE senior, proved it could be done on a small budget.
Kaplan then began seeking additional students to form what is known today as CyDrone. The group’s mission is to build an affordable, small UAV for civil application, but Kaplan has an underlying personal goal.
“The first thing most people think of when they hear the word ‘drone’ is the militarized version, but nothing requires a drone to be militarized and used for destruction” explains Kaplan. “There are all kinds of fantastic applications for these devices beyond military use, and it’s important to me that our group demonstrates just that.”
The group is designing the third version of its CyDrone, which features an interchangeable payload, uncommon to most UAV’s but beneficial in simplifying the adaptation process required to modify the purpose of a particular UAV.
With most UAV’s, turning a design into something that can be physically manufactured can be challenging, but thanks to a 3D printer and other resources offered by M:2:I, the group took its design straight from the computer to the printer to create a rigid structure.
“Matthew (Nelson) has been a huge supporter since day one, contributing guidance, support, and suggestions. Undertaking a project like this is not easy so any help we can get is appreciated. M:2:I has gone above and beyond those expectations,” Kaplan says.
Once CyDrone X-3 is fully assembled, the group will test functionality before opening up the project to others to gather ideas for applications.
Expanding hands-on experience
M:2:I marks the start of AerE’s efforts to expand hands-on opportunities for students. Soon the department will be launching an additional program, CycloneWorX, to give students experience in contract-driven research. The first CycloneWorX project began this past June as a small group of students worked with Raytheon on a proprietary contracted research project.
“When our students leave here, they will go work for companies in which they’ll be writing proposals to get their research projects funded. The idea of CycloneWorX is to mimic that process while they are still undergrads,” explains Wlezien. “We want to offer our students as many real-world opportunities as possible, giving them dynamic skills to use once they are in industry.”