Embry-Riddle takes first place at AIAA’s student aircraft competition

This year’s Design/Build/Fly event challenged students to emulate electric passenger aircraft

WICHITA, Kansas — The team from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Daytona Beach campus in Florida won AIAA’s annual Design/Build/Fly competition for electric radio-controlled aircraft yesterday, flying the most simulated passengers in a contest that emulated urban air mobility, the coming electric aircraft services.

Embry-Riddle defeated the biggest field in the history of the AIAA event — 93 teams from 13 countries including the United States.  Clouds, temperatures in the low 40s and wind gusts of 37 kph on Saturday caused a few teams to crash their aircraft, but Sunday provided nearly ideal flying conditions with a light breeze.

The event at Textron Aviation’s Employees Flying Club drew 1,042 students whose teams were challenged to carry wooden peg dolls representing passengers and crew, over the course of three flights and one ground mission. The first flight, Mission 1, consisted of flying two dolls that represented crew members. In Mission 2, the teams completed a medical transport flight, loading their planes with additional dolls that represented emergency medical personnel and a patient. In Mission 3, they were free to carry as many passenger dolls as they chose to simulate the flight of an electric air taxi. In the ground mission, they were scored on how quickly they swapped their aircraft between the medical transport and passenger configurations.

For Embry-Riddle, the win was a breakthrough. “We’ve always done well here, but this is the first time we’ve come in first,” said Riley Cox-Gross, an Embry-Riddle graduate student and pilot who has participated in previous at DBF competitions.

Embry-Riddle won the $3,000 grand prize by flying six laps while carrying 117 passenger dolls. Georgia Tech took the $2,000 second-place prize by going to the other extreme: flying with just four passenger dolls and maximizing points awarded for the ground mission — shortest time to load and unload the plane — at just 36 seconds. That compared with Embry-Riddle taking 5 minutes, 32 seconds to load and unload.

Max Kramer, Georgia Tech’s pilot and chief engineer, said the team did an analysis of the scoring structure before it designed the plane. “We saw that there are two extremes that looked promising,” Kramer said. “We took a gamble and thought, ‘Well, a lot of teams are going to go for a lot of passengers. We’re going to go for something else.’”

Jeffrey Perry, Georgia Tech’s project manager and a former intern at electric aviation company Whisper Aero, said that the team chose four because that is the number of passengers that most of the electric air taxi developers are planning to transport. Doing so also removed the pressure to quickly load numerous dolls. Perry plans to pursue a career in urban air mobility.

University of Washington in Seattle took third place with a $1,500 award, flying with 75 dolls and completing the ground mission in just under three minutes.

Teams also had to show they could park their planes in a space just 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) wide, which required most of them to fold their wings. University of Central Florida won $100 for the best parking configuration.

University of Southern California won a $100 prize for best design paper submitted prior to the fly-off event, and also won the Stan Powell Memorial Award for the team that showed it learned the most. Though USC started the fly-off event in first place, it failed to complete one of the flights. The team decided to withdraw at the last moment before takeoff because one of the members said he may have forgotten to strap down the battery, creating a potential hazardous imbalance that could have caused the plane to crash.

USC’s decision to pull its plane off the flight line was “an excellent lesson for everybody in this industry for the rest of your careers,” AIAA CEO Dan Dumbacher said during the award ceremony on Sunday evening.

Embry-Riddle takes first place at AIAA’s student aircraft competition