Aachen University wins AIAA’s annual student aircraft competition

Design, Build, Fly event draws record 81 collegiate teams

TUCSON, Ariz. — RWTH Aachen University of Germany took first place yesterday in AIAA’s annual Design, Build, Fly competition, beating teams from 13 other nations.

The competition held at the Tucson International Modelplex Park Association challenged students to design, build and test fly an aircraft with simulated electronic warfare components, such as a PVC pipe attached to one wing to simulate a jamming antenna.

Points were awarded for completing flight laps within contest time limits during three missions. On Mission 1, the competitors didn’t have to carry a payload or simulated antenna and were awarded a single point for completing three laps. On Mission 2, however, teams gained points by flying as many laps as possible in 10 minutes with a payload on board, and the score was calculated via a formula that included the weight of a simulated electronics payload as a ratio to the gross weight of the plane. Mission 3 was flown with the PVC pipe antenna and points were gained for the length of the vertical antenna and for the time to complete three laps.

In addition to the three flights, each team completed a ground mission, in which points were awarded for the amount of weight the wings of their aircraft could support while mounted on a test stand. These team-supplied weights, which ranged from gym weights to pavers, were stacked on top of the aircraft or hung below.

Aachen won the first place purse of $3,000 by sustaining 758 pounds (344 kilograms) of added weight during the ground mission in the form of patio pavers stacked on top of its fuselage. The team also flew its plane 12 laps at a gross weight of 32.05 pounds (13.5 kilograms) while carrying a payload of 16.6 pounds (7.5 kilograms), and flew three laps with a 38.15-inch (97-centimeter) antenna in 1 minute, 19 seconds.

The team from University of Ljubljana in Slovenia took second place and the $2,000 prize by sustaining 320.7 pounds (145 kilograms) of added weight during the ground mission. The team also flew its plane 11 laps at a gross weight of 12.45 pounds (5.6 kilograms) while carrying a payload of 3.75 pounds (1.7 kilograms), and flew three laps with a 38.8-inch (98.5-cm) antenna in 1 minute, 20 seconds.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Daytona Beach, Florida, took third place with a $1,500 award by sustaining 133.9 pounds (60.7 kilograms) of added weight and completing eight laps at a gross weight of 30.75 pounds (14 kilograms) with a payload of 16.6 pounds (7.5 kilograms). The aircraft flew three laps with a 37.14-inch (94.3-cm) antenna in 1 minute, 17 seconds.

The University of Washington in Seattle won $100 for submitting the design with the highest score to start the competition — 91.42 out of 100. Teams submitted their designs prior to the three-day flyoff, and judges awarded initial points for those designs.

The DBF organizing committee also awarded the Stan Powell Memorial Award to the team from Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, which encountered several obstacles in getting to flight and crashed its plane. The award is named after the late aerospace engineer, given to the DBF team that showed it learned the most.

The Aachen team purchased an “optimizer” computer program to perfect the design of its carbon fiber composite plane, the Hugo 5, team captain Ivo Zell told me. The program suggested designs based on parameters fed into it about the competition’s missions and rules, he said.

The Hugo 5 had the largest wingspan in the competition at 2.3 meters. The name is a reference to German aircraft engineer and designer Hugo Junkers.

Zell, a first-year master’s degree student, said the team had tempered the structure by heating it in a custom-made autoclave to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius), strengthening it.

Ljubljana was able to nab second place by focusing on aerodynamic design for its plane, Atlas, by using only ailerons for steering and by foregoing wing flaps, team captain Teo Stupar told me.

“We really tried to make it as sleek as possible,” Stupar said. “We made the custom carbon fiber composite spar ourselves.”

Though the plane held up over 320 pounds, a wing cracked and buckled when the team attempted to add more. “That was heartbreaking,” Stupar said. “That was going to be our main haymaker, but we repaired it in about 15 minutes to try another flight.”

Embry-Riddle crashed a few times before achieving its third place position with its plane, Rooster, which had a carbon fiber composite frame and balsa wood frame wings covered with Monokote plastic sheets.

Team pilot Riley Cox-Gross, a senior with years of experience at DBF, said this year’s competition was more technically stringent than in the past. “The ground mission, testing loads on the aircraft, required teams to be more structurally cognizant, so the aircrafts are more robust,” Cox-Gross said.

Weather for the competition was mostly warm and sunny on the flat treeless plain of the eastern Sonoran Desert and characterized by mostly light breezes, except for some gusts on Friday. One of the planes in competition, for FH Joanneum University in Austria, ignited a smoldering fire in the dry brush near the runway after crashing, but Metroplex personnel quickly put it out with an extinguisher.

Working with limited crew and materials was the biggest challenge for the team from Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology in Pakistan, team captain Syeda Fatima told me. She and team member Aziz Khan were among the smallest teams. Their plane crashed and broke a wing on Saturday. By Sunday, they were ready to fly again after repairing it with balsa wood splints and Monokote coating.

“We’re learning to overcome challenges of limited resources,” Fatima said. “We had a 3D-printer but we couldn’t bring it, so we had to do everything manually, and we’re just low on manpower.”

She was thankful, though, that they received help from other teams and rides to the site.

The 2023 event was the first time that the competition awarded participating points — one point for showing up, two points for passing a technical inspection and three for attempting a flight.

While many schools have participated in AIAA’s DBF for decades, several schools competed for the first time this year, including Colorado State University, which inaugurated an aerospace engineering program in 2021.

Daniel Zhou, a third-year student at CSU, told me the team had struggled a bit with one of the competition’s many parameters, which was to fit their plane into a box that conformed with airliner checked luggage requirements. The plane and the box together had to weigh 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) or less.

“We wanted to represent our new aerospace program through competition events like this and make our presence known,” Zhou said on Saturday. “But it is our first time, and we ran into some unpredicted roadblocks. But we’re working through it, keeping our head down and solving problems, and we’re excited to see how we can do this.”

CSU was able to finish its technical inspection but not soon enough to fly.

The turnout of 81 teams beat the previous record of 77 teams in 2018 and 2019.

Aachen University wins AIAA’s annual student aircraft competition