Four aerospace engineering students and their professor are continuing to refine their design for a flying vehicle as part of an international competition.
The Texas A&M team’s prototype vehicle was selected as one of the top designs from more than 850 teams participating in Boeing’s GoFly competition.
The competition encourages designers, inventors and engineers to build a personal flying vehicle that can be stored in a garage like a car, take off vertically from a small area and fly about 20 miles on one battery charge.
The A&M team’s Aria device began as a design on paper in early 2018 before moving into the one-third scale competition. The full-scale model is capable of carrying a 200-pound person.
None of the teams competing in a February fly-off in California claimed the $1 million grand prize, so the competition is ongoing.
The Texas A&M team plans to get back to work once it is able to return to campus, but A&M aerospace engineering assistant professor and team lead Moble Benedict said the university’s closure for the coronavirus pandemic has not derailed the team’s progress much.
Even though they are unable to work on the vehicle prototype, Benedict said, the team members are analyzing what they have learned from the competition so far and fundraising to improve for the next phase.
Graduate student team member Farid Saemi said the experience has been rewarding.
“It was very exhilarating, just this entire process to be on the front lines of building something new, building something that hasn’t been built before, fresh out of school,” he said.
Benedict said the only thing holding the team back is financial resources.
“Nobody can beat us in this competition,” he said. “Our team has the technical ability. We’re confident that we have the ability to win the actual GoFly prize.”
Their budget for the project, which was built in the university’s Advanced Vertical Flight Laboratory, was $300,000, Benedict said. A large company, he said, could spend tens of millions of dollars on a new full-scale aircraft.
Saemi said the competition showed him how important it is that the technical, non-technical, publicity and fundraising aspects of the project work together.
In the final competition, Benedict said, the team had to use a one-third scale model of the vehicle and show videos of the full-scale version. The team’s full-scale model crashed during a final untethered flight, and it was unable to build a second prototype in time.
“If we had flown our full-scale, we would have been the best flying team in the competition,” he said.
Now, he said, they want to repair the prototype and improve upon the design for what he called GoFly 2.0, which he expects will take place sometime next year.
Based on what he saw in California from teams representing countries from around the world, he said, Texas A&M’s team had more innovations than almost all the other teams.
The Aria was also the quietest, recording 73 decibels at 50 feet in the air, which is the equivalent of highway noise in a car, Saemi said.
Graduate student team member Bochan Lee said he sees the Aria and the A&M team at the front of the personal flying vehicle field.
Since returning from California, Benedict said, he has reached out to the Army Futures Command on the RELLIS campus to explore the military’s interest in a quiet, personal flying vehicle.
Saemi said he sees vehicles like the Aria being most effective in connecting rural and urban locations and in assisting with emergency and utility services.
“Hopefully in 10 years, one of our vehicles will be just as common as a pickup truck in rural Texas,” he said.
Throughout the process, Saemi said, he has gained a greater appreciation for the engineering process.
“It is an art of itself,” he said. “People say engineers are very non-creative and all, but designing a helicopter from a clean slate, you’re designing, fabricating, building, putting together, flight testing. It was a roller coaster of activities and emotions.”