The winners of the Boeing National Aeromodelling Competition South Zone on their experience

Two members of the winning team write about the work that went into designing an award-winning aeroplane

May 07, 2023 06:23 pm | Updated 06:23 pm IST

The winning team with its model.

The winning team with its model. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Most people have a niche area in their work or a hobby they excel in; something that makes them feel alive. For us, it was a love for aeroplanes and the Boeing National Aeromodelling Competition South Zone was a chance to prove ourselves.

The competition — organised by Boeing and the IITs at Kanpur, Kharagpur, Bombay and Madras — tested students’ ability to design the lightest possible aeroplane capable of carrying the most weight. The goal, therefore, became aerodynamic efficiency and engineering superiority. It was also a test of piloting skills; countless planes looked more impressive than ours but crashed in turbulent conditions because they were not handled well.

Apart from the two of us (Kakade was the captain and in charge of simulation modelling and optimisation and Nair was Chief of Design, responsible for the aerodynamic performance), the other two members were Nikhil Kapil, Chief of Avionic Systems, handling electronics; and Om Panchal, our lead pilot, who over saw Flight Dynamics.

Designing the plane

Preparing for this competition took over our lives. Siddharth’s windows were covered in equations and diagrams and cleaning them was strictly forbidden, Om’s garage was overflowing with crashed prototypes and materials for the next one. Endless amounts of coffee-fuelled discussions consumed our days. These are certainly the best memories of our college days.

What separated our team from our competitors was our approach to designing at the very limit of what would fly. We spent countless hours in the workshop evaluating different design concepts and the trade-offs associated with each one, as every part of the aeroplane was purpose-built from scratch and optimised for aerodynamic performance.

We used cutting-edge structural optimisation and aerodynamic simulation software along with advanced manufacturing techniques such as 3D-printing to shave off every gram possible.

A key factor in our success was choosing the right materials. The design needed something lightweight but sturdy, and finding these involved searching every fathomable corner of Mumbai, from tiny shops in Crawford Market to remote factories beyond Kalyan. We eventually settled on a combination of lightweight Depron biofoam and carbon fibre. The first provided the bulk of the structural strength, while the latter added stiffness and stability.

The competition

The competition was held over two days, during which all teams had to drop their payload — as many golf balls as your plane can carry — into a dedicated zone and then land the plane in the landing area. The team with the highest ratio of payload carried to the weight of the plane would be the winner.

Every day, the team got two attempts to fly. On the first flight of the final day, one of our components blew up due to overheating and the plane nose-dived straight to the ground. With some quick thinking, our pilot saved it, limiting a possibly catastrophic crash to a possibly repairable one, with one hour to go before our second and final attempt.

We rushed to work and got the plane ready to go with a few minutes left before the deadline. It was held together entirely with tape, glue, and extra waste bits of carbon fibre. The wind conditions got worse, as the day progressed, and plane after plane crashed with resounding cracks and thuds, putting a disheartening end to months of work. It only needed one strong gust of wind and one wrong input from the pilot. Of the 83 teams that participated, 20 got to the finals. And only eight dropped the payload successfully and landed.

When our time came, our plucky little plane flew straight as an arrow. Despite the precarious reinforcements, our design was sound and our Maths correct. In the end, the countless hours we had put in was worth it. As we move on to greater challenges, the experience of this competition will always stay with us.

The writers are students of Mechanical Engineering at NMIMS Mukesh Patel School of Technology Management and Engineering, Mumbai

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