Georgia Tech wins AIAA annual aircraft competition after days of wind warnings

First in-person Design, Build, Fly event since 2019 brings out fresh cadre of young aerospace students and professionals

WICHITA, Kansas — Georgia Tech took first place yesterday in AIAA’s annual Design, Build, Fly competition for electric radio-controlled aircraft, an event marked by high wind warnings and gusts up to 88 kilometers per hour on Saturday.

The competition held at Textron Aviation’s Employee’s Flying Club challenged student teams to create a plane and carry vaccination syringes without needles and vaccine vials in flight. Points were awarded for the number of syringes and vials carried, and for fast and efficient loading and unloading during three flying missions and one ground mission.

Georgia Tech won the first-place purse of $3,000 by carrying 80 syringes during the Mission 2 round in the fastest time of the three-day competition, and by carrying eight boxes representing vaccine vials in the third mission.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, took second place and the $2,000 prize, while Austria’s F.H. Joanneum University of Applied Sciences took third place with a $1,500 award.

Joanneum also won $100 for submitting the design with the highest score to start the competition — 93.3 out of 100.

The DBF organizing committee also awarded a new prize for the first time to the University at Buffalo: a plaque in the form of a shiny clipboard inscribed with the school’s name. The prize is named for the late aerospace engineer Stan Powell and is awarded to the DBF team that showed it had learned the most.

This year’s DBF event was the first to be held in person since 2019, because the last two years were virtual competitions based solely on aircraft design due to the covid-19 pandemic.

2022 winner Georgia Tech attributed its success to its decision to address all priorities of the competition, including speed of delivery, team pilot Gowtham Venkatachalam told me.

“We flew twice as fast as most of the bigger planes,” Venkatachalam said.

Georgia Tech’s plane, the Buzztang, had a balsa wood and plywood frame with carbon fiber reinforcement and MonoKote plastic exterior. On Mission 2, the plane completed a flight with syringes in one minute, 26 seconds — the fastest in the competition.

Embry-Riddle’s plane was propelled by a single propeller with a 1,300-watt motor. Featuring a balsa wood frame covered with transparent yellow Ultracote plastic film, the plane was designed with the capacity to fly 180 syringes.

“The single motor is powerful enough to give us what we need for takeoff, and we can fly for 10 minutes, and it’s very efficient,” Noah Pecor, Embry-Riddle’s team lead, said. “It’s fairly easy to load and unload, just because it’s so open inside. There’s very little structure in there.”

The Austrian team’s high design score aided their overall standing because it was multiplied by all their other mission scores. The group wore lederhosen shorts as a fun team-building gesture while working on their black, carbon fiber plane, the Hornet.

“We didn’t expect our plan to be first [in the design category]. That was a welcome surprise,” team captain Matthias Spitzauer, 24, said. “We had heard from our predecessors that it’s windy in Wichita, but this was pretty extreme.”

The competition ended early for several teams whose planes crashed on Saturday, including Notre Dame, whose plane weighed about 4.5 kg with a relatively large wingspan of 2.4 meters.

“I’m disappointed, but I don’t regret trying to fly because we wanted to get all three required flights in,” said team captain Christopher Zahn, 22. “I think the experience has set the team up very well to compete next year.”

On Sunday morning, wind speeds dropped to 30 kph, but crosswinds resulted in more crashes. Some teams were able to recover after crashing, such as the group from Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York. They rebuilt on Saturday only to crash again Sunday onto a nearby roof.

The Clarkson team was the only one at the competition to be led by two women — Kaylee Schrader, 23, and Taylor Converse, 21.

“Our hearts dropped when we saw the plane nose-dive and crash, but it landed on its landing gear,” Schrader said of the first crash. “We were pretty confident in our carbon fiber structure, so we definitely knew we’d rebuild it.”

The team’s coach, Ken Visser, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said the experience of crashing and rebuilding was invaluable.

“That to me is one really key aspect of a competition like this,” Visser said. “That’s a process; it isn’t something you can teach. They will be changed by this and going forward.”

Schrader of Clarkson already has a job lined up with GKN Aerospace in Connecticut. Her classmate Converse will work an internship with GE Aviation this summer.

Georgia Tech wins AIAA annual aircraft competition after days of wind warnings