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On the wings of a dream

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WINNING COMBINATION Srinath and Anusha
WINNING COMBINATION Srinath and Anusha

S. Srinath and R. Anusha, students of Anna University, have been selected by NASA for their prize-winning aircraft design. DIVYA KUMARspoke to the duo

S. Srinath and R. Anusha travelled on an airplane for the first time in their lives recently. The two engineering students had heard a lot about what it would be like, but found their experience was rather different from that of other first-time flyers. That’s probably because the others hadn’t designed an entire aircraft just a couple of months before. Or won an award from NASA for their design.

It’s hard to tell what the two Anna University students are more enthusiastic about when we meet up on the Guindy campus’ airy grounds — their first journey aboard a plane or their recently announced second prize in the international category of NASA’s Fundamental Aeronautics contest.

“I travelled to Port Blair with my family, but I was more excited about the flight than about the actual visit,” laughs Srinath.

“I spent my whole flight with my face plastered to the window,” admits Anusha. “The amazing part was that it was a night flight, so I got to watch a constellation of stars and observe how the wing of the plane works at the same time.”

Their other journey — the one that will take them to Atlanta, USA, this October to present their paper at a NASA conference and receive their award — began way back in January. That’s when Anusha, a final-year mechanical engineering student, stumbled across the announcement for the design contest while browsing the space agency’s website.

For the last year, she had been doing independent research in aerodynamics under the guidance Dr. E. Natarajan, a specialist in combustion and propulsion, and this was the perfect opportunity to put all that she’d learned together. And it was only natural that she would team up with Srinath, the third-year student of geo-informatics she’d worked with on post-graduate-level projects under Dr. Natarajan.

“They didn’t cudgel their brains to come up with something for just this paper,” remarks the professor, who served as their faculty advisor for the contest. “Rather, it was a matter of putting together things they’d been working on for some time.”

That meant the duo’s unusual Blended Wing Body aircraft design came together rather smoothly in the next couple of months. They became one of the 14 teams from across the world taking part in the contest that required participants to design a transport aircraft of the future — one that would be able to take off on a short runway, would use noise-reduction technology and be fuel efficient.

Still, they had virtually zero expectation of actually winning. When the results were announced via email about a month later, they couldn’t believe their eyes — literally.

“The email just said a two-man team from Anna University had won second place. I called Srinath and said, ‘it’s probably us, right?’” says Anusha, adding in amusement, “I actually ended up mailing them back asking ‘is it us?’”

Not surprisingly, aeronautics features pretty prominently in their future plans. Anusha wants to do post-graduate studies and research in aeronautical engineering and Srinath plans to specialise in photogrammetry, the study of aerial photography for creating three-dimensional models and maps of the earth’s surface. Meanwhile, their love-affair with everything aircraft-related continues, as evidenced by the way their eyes roll up to the sky in unison every time a low-flying jet plane roars by on its way to the airport just a few kilometres away.

“We always look up at them and try and guess what aircraft it is,” says Srinath by way of explanation.

And they don’t even mind the constant noise of planes overhead at their campus. “We love it because it reminds us of all that engine technology — it’s like background music,” he says with a grin.

In their case, you could probably call it the sweet sound of success.

  • The Fundamental Aeronautics Program of the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters conducts this aeronautics contest annually

  • All four of NASA’s aeronautics centres (Ames, Dryden, Glenn and Langley) participate in reviewing entries

  • The winners for 2007-2008 in the U.S. were Georgia Institute of Technology (graduate team) and Virginia Institute of Technology (undergraduate team). The international winners were University of Technology, Sydney, Australia and Anna University, Chennai, India.

  • The next contest will be announced on or before September 1, 2008.

  • For details, refer: http://aero.larc.nasa.gov/competitions_univ.htm

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