Iowa State students launch “Bristle Buster F2” glider in flight contest

Bristle Buster F2 at Red Bull Flugtag 2012

It was not an engineering challenge for mere mortals.

It was for no less a superhero than Fluoride Man, defender of good dental hygiene, that Iowa State engineering students Ryan Betters and Ryan Francois designed, built and flew the glider “Bristle Buster F2” in Red Bull Flugtag, a human-powered flight competition held in Singapore Oct. 28.

Fluoride Man, the Bristle Buster, and all the far more serious engineering work were the creative genius of Betters and Francois, who are currently studying as exchange students in Singapore. Betters is a civil engineering student studying environmental engineering at National University of Singapore. Francois is a civil engineering student studying at Nanyang Technological University.

The decision to compete was last minute and the superhero design concept was late night, according to Betters and Francois, who were good friends at Iowa State before heading to Asia to study.

“I got a phone call from Ryan (Francois) during our first week of school,” said Betters. “Since the application was due the next day he immediately came over to my campus and we were up all night putting together an application and sketching ideas.”

Ryan Francois
Ryan Francois

“It was one of those times when you’re so tired everything is funny, and when Ryan (Betters) reached for his toothbrush to brush his teeth we started to joke around about how it might be cool to build a giant toothbrush,” said Francois. “We started to throw out more and more ridiculous ideas, including a cavity fighting superhero who flies around in a giant toothbrush, and the concept of Fluoride Man continued to grow from there.”

A Red Bull Flugtag (German for “flying day”) competition requires teams to push or pull a homemade human-powered flying machine off a six-meter high and 30-meter long ramp into a body of water. Entries also include a skit and are judged on creativity, showmanship, and distance flown. The first Flugtag, sponsored by the energy drink Red Bull, was held in Vienna, Austria in1992.  Since then, over a 100 competitions have been hosted worldwide.

The two Ryans constructed the Bristle Buster F2 cart and glider of welded aluminum tube framing; the shape was created with high-density foam profiles and polyester plastic film shell, which gave their contest entry its aerodynamic profile. The wingspan was just under 8 meters and was exactly four meters tall when mounted on its cart. The cart, the plane and the pilot (Ryan Betters) all weighed 185 kg, 15 kg short of the maximum weight of allowed for the competition. They said they easily put in at least 40 hours per week on their project, with lots of all-nighters.

They were joined in the challenge by two other team members: Vivek Ashok, an electrical engineering student from Muscat, Oman; and Patrik Asén, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Helsinki, Finland, both studying at Nanyang Technological University.

Ryan Betters
Ryan Betters

“We had to deal with many situations any professional engineer would,” said Betters. “That included sourcing material, speaking with multiple suppliers to compare and select the best price, and working as a team to complete the project in the given time constraint. The most difficult task for our team was resourcing materials. Unlike in the states, there is no Home Depot or Menards to gather supplies.”

“That was a pain, but definitely a great experience for a bunch of future engineers,” said Francois. “We were able to select materials based off of design constraints and specification charts, source them, solicit multiple bids from suppliers, and chose the best one for our needs. We also got plenty of experience arranging purchases and deliveries to coordinate with our construction schedule.”

The “Flight of Fluoride Man” team was one of 38 chosen to compete, out of over 400 applications. The competition, hosted at Siloso Beach on Sentosa Island in Singapore, drew over 35,000 spectators.

The team suffered an unfortunate setback when two support members in the wheel assembly bent right before the flight. With no time to fix the problem, they were forced to carry the back end of the cart, and weren’t able to achieve the higher ramp speed they needed for a better flight distance.

“The ol’ Bristle Buster F2 still performed quite well, all things considered,” said Francois. “It was very stable in the stiff wind that hurt most teams pretty badly, and definitely didn’t nosedive. We don’t know our final distance, but we still finished in the upper middle of the pack.”

Betters and Francois said it was disheartening to see their aircraft dismantled and disposed of after the competition, but still felt positive about the entire experience.

“I’m walking away from this project with new technical skills from working in the shops cutting aluminum & wood, shaping foam, and constructing the wings,” said Betters. “I’ve also gained a lot of experience with scheduling, time management, and resourcing materials. Most importantly I’m coming away with new friends and great memories.”

“Fluoride Man will never die,” said Francois, “he lives on in the hearts of those who continue the fight for proper dental hygiene around the world. While we didn’t end up winning anything at the event, we are coming away from this project with so many good memories and an unbelievable experience.”